U.S. Military Sees X-51 as the Wave(rider) of the Future

X-51 Waverider

Over at Spaceflight Now, Craig Covault has a detailed story about the military’s X-51 hypersonic vehicle, which is set to take its first test flight next week. The test is a precursor to what officials hope will be an entirely new way to send payloads into space:

The first hypersonic X-51 scramjet powered long-duration flights to give the Pentagon a new “Prompt Global Strike” capability that ties atmospheric and space propulsion will begin as early as May 25 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The X-vehicle scramjet flight tests are also a key step for the use of air breathing propulsion to launch into space.

As spectacular as space shuttle flights still are, they are also about the past. Scramjet propulsion is about the future. Unlike rocket engines, scramjets (supersonic combustion ramjets) are air-breathing engines that inhale oxygen from the atmosphere to achieve near rocket engine velocities and altitudes without carrying tons of oxidizer supplies.

Scramjets should eventually enable flights to hypersonic near-space velocities and altitudes, just like high performance jet engines propelled the Anglo-French Concorde to supersonic speeds in the upper atmosphere….

This air-breathing scramjet capability is expected by about 2025 to begin a revolution in U.S. space launch capability especially for rapid, aircraft-like launch of small, but critical U.S. military spacecraft.

Read the full story.