Barring the sudden resurrection of the Concorde, humans won’t get to experience ultra-high speed air transportation anytime soon. If that ever changes, it may be thanks to the Boeing X-51--an experimental plane that can go up to 3,600 mph--three times faster than the Concorde. That’s fast enough to go from Los Angeles to New York City in under an hour. And this week, it will be tested in the real world.
The unmanned plane, which looks like it emerged from a vintage sci-fi novel, is "airbreathing"--meaning it operates using onboard hydrogen fuel and oxygen pulled from the atmosphere. The compression of the two gases gives the plane enough thrust to travel at hypersonic speeds.
Like many major technological innovations, the X-51 program is a military effort, created as a partnership between the United States Air Force, DARPA, NASA, Boeing, and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Today’s test will see the plane attached to the wing of a B-52 bomber, flying from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert to a point 50,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. There is no final land-based destination; the plane is supposed to fly at Mach 6 (hypersonic speeds) for 330 seconds before dropping into the ocean. If it works, it will be the longest that a plane has ever flown at that speed.
The X-51 is intended for use as a stealth military aircraft--one that can potentially travel with weapons at high speeds. But there are obvious civilian applications further down the line. "Once the military proves out the concept, hypersonic transport becomes a step closer to reality," explained Dora Musielak, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Texas at Arlington, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. And when hypersonic transport becomes a viable option, the world will get a whole lot smaller.