Flying Really Fast

There aren’t many NASA types at the National Space Symposium this week.  This is the biggest aerospace convention of the year, and almost everybody is in Colorado Springs.  While the focus is on “national security space” there has been plenty of talk about how space observations are mandatory for climate monitoring, where satellite phone and TV communications are headed in the future, and how emerging commercial human space flight will be affected by government rules and regulations.

Most NASA people stayed home because of a restriction put into last year’s NASA budget greatly restricting the agency’s budget for conference attendance.  This is the only conference I am going to this year, for example.  It makes it hard to keep up with what is going on in the world.  But enough whining, that is not my point today.

I had a great conversation with the Air Force Research Lab guys about their X-51 hypersonic scram jet test which is coming up this fall.  I am particularly interested in the development of this technology since it will someday enable aircraft travel vastly more efficient and faster than what we currently suffer through.  Can you imagine being anywhere in the world within about an hour of takeoff?  That is the kind of travel that is possible.

The shuttle had an outstanding test last flight looking into the arcane science of how air closest to a flying vehicle (called the boundary layer) transitions from laminar to turbulent flow.  Early results indicate we had a controlled transition around Mach 16 versus the usual Mach 8.  This type of data is invaluable to the designers of future hypersonic aircraft.  And it can’t be gathered in wind tunnels or any other ground test.

Anyway, the X-51 is ready to take scram jet engines to the next level — This engine will run for up to 11 minutes which is a quantum leap past the current record holder of about 12 seconds.  The flight will take place over the Pacific Ocean this fall. 

I can’t wait to hear the results.  But even more than that, I can’t wait to get out of my trans-oceanic coach seat in one hour instead of eight!

Keep up the good work guys — keep pushing the envelope!

5 thoughts on “Flying Really Fast”

  1. It used to take only 3.5 hours to go from New York to Paris. Now it takes 8 hours. Don’t think the lack of a scramjet engine is the reason air travel is getting slower.

  2. Great news that the boundary layer test managed to provide valuable data. It begs the question if there are now any more tests which could be implemented on the handful of remaining Shuttle flights which would help to validate the current findings and to, hopefully, further increase the body of knowledge in this fascinating area?

  3. Forgive me but what does ” Early results indicate we had a controlled transition around Mach 16 versus the usual Mach 8.” mean? I thought the idea was to “trip” the boundary layer from laminar to turbulent flow. If it means that the modified tile “tripped” it at Mach 16 instead of Mach 8, then why do you use the term “controlled transition”? Was there something different about this “controlled transition”? And what usually “trips” it around Mach 8? Forgive me for my ignorance. I am having difficulty understanding what you mean but what I think what you mean is that with the shuttle you were able to “trip” the boundary at a higher Mach number than has yet to be be possible with other experimental vehicles, specifically the X series, where the upper limit for testing was Mach 8. Is that what you meant or am I all wrong?

  4. Wayne,

    I hate to be a wet blanket, but is anyone studying the effects of unburned hydrocarbons in the part of the atmosphere where hypersonic flights will be taking place?
    Even if the fuel(s) used are cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen, the formation of water vapor as a byproduct of combustion will ensue, leading to the formation of contrails at an altitude where little is known about whattheir effects will be.

    If you want to read something really interesting, read about the phenomenon known as “screech” to turbine engine builders.

  5. My grandfather use to be the general at Andrews Air force Base. This was years ago so I get to hear all kinds of cool stories. I'm sure there are much better stories than one's I get to hear but I guess he can't talk about everything.


    He told me a story about a plane ( wouldn't tell me the model ) that was “top secret” and extremely fast. This plan was silent and was able to fly extremely low and fast They were testing it one night and it flew over top of some type housing building.

    He said everyone came running out not because they heard a plan very low but because every window in the building shattered! He said no one ( in the housing unit ) had a clue what had happened except all the windows mysteriously shattered.

    Not really to related to your post but I thought it was cool 🙂

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