NASA was set over the weekend to conduct drop testing on
the second of three unpiloted X-43A vehicles the Hyper-X program.
The test is a dress rehearsal for its free flight currently
scheduled for Feb. 21, 2004.
Pending thorough evaluation of all flight data, the
captive-carry test could lead to the February launch of the X-43A
stack. The stack, consisting of the X-43A and its modified Pegasus
booster will be air-launched by NASA's B-52 carrier aircraft at
40,000 feet altitude. The booster will accelerate the X-43A to Mach
7 at approximately 95,000 feet altitude. At booster burnout, the
X-43 will separate and fly under its own power on a preprogrammed
Distinctive to the X-43A is the blending of its integrated
airframe with a scramjet or supersonic combustion ramjet engine,
intended to make the X-43A the first air-breathing hypersonic
vehicle in free flight. The hydrogen-fueled aircraft has a wingspan
of approximately 5 feet, measures 12 feet long and weighs about
The flight of vehicle two is programmed for Mach 7 - seven times
the speed of sound. The third vehicle of the series is planned to
reach Mach 10. Using an air-breathing scramjet engine instead of
conventional rocket power, the X-43A could be the forerunner in
providing faster, more reliable and less expensive access to space.
A scramjet uses oxygen from the atmosphere, unlike rockets that
must carry oxidizer onboard. This could enable scramjet vehicles to
carry bigger payloads, travel farther, or be smaller than
comparable rocket vehicles.
On June 2, 2001, the first X-43A vehicle was lost moments after
the stack was released from the wing of the B-52. Following booster
ignition, the combined booster and X-43A vehicle deviated from its
flight path and was deliberately terminated.
Investigation into the mishap showed that there was no single
contributing factor but the root cause of the booster going off its
trajectory was resolved through development of better analytical
models and modification of the control system in the booster. Now,
the booster will carry less propellant and will be released from
40,000 feet instead of 20,000 feet as was done in the first
Pegasus's normal launch altitude of 40,000 feet is beneficial
due to the lower air density at this altitude. This reduces loads
on the booster fins. To launch at this altitude and still end up at
the correct test conditions of 95,000 feet and Mach 7 required
removal of about 3,500 pounds of the propellant from the solid
The experimental aircraft will fly in the Naval Air Warfare
Center Weapons Division Sea Range over the Pacific Ocean off the
coast of southern California, where after powered flight, it will
glide to a safe impact and sink. NASA's Langley Research Center,
Hampton (VA), and Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards (CA),
conduct the Hyper-X program jointly.
Allied Aerospace Industries in Tullahoma (TN), built both the
vehicle and the engine, and Boeing North American in Huntington
Beach, Calif., designed the thermal protection and propulsion
control systems. The booster is a modified Pegasus rocket from
Orbital Sciences Corp. Chandler (AZ). The Hyper-X program is part
of NASA's Next Generation Launch Technology program.