This flight is the product of 20 years of "Scramjet" (Supersonic Combustible Ramjet) technology research. The X-43A is designed to fly at Mach 7 (seven times the speed of sound), far faster than any previous air-breathing aircraft. Scramjets tap the atmosphere for oxygen, so the need for heavy oxygen tanks used to feed conventional rocket engines at high altitudes would be eliminated. This would allow them to carry more cargo into orbit.
A B-52 carried the X-43A (fitted to the nose of a 100 foot long Pegasus rocket). The Pegasus rocket which was launched, taking the vehicle to 90,000 feet and Mach 7 conditions. Once the booster burnt out, the unpiloted X-43A separated from the rocket and flew under its own power for 10 seconds before landing into the Pacific Ocean.
The U.S. Department of Defense is also extremely interested, not only for increasing their access to space but extending their 'global reach.' Since scramjet aircraft could travel at thousands of miles per hour, they would to be able to launch a mission from the continental United States to anyplace on the globe, reach that destination in a couple of hours and return without relying on foreign bases or in-flight refueling.
Three of the 12 foot long, five foot wingspan X-43As were built as part of the research program. The first X-43A was lost in 2002, before it could be deployed when a rocket booster failed and the rocket went out of control, long before the vehicle was deployed. - Adam Geibel
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NASA made it's second, this time successful, attempt to fly the X-43A experimental hypersonic research aircraft on March 27th. The successful test flight, 80 kilometers off the coast of California, should lead to faster, less expensive and more reliable access to space. The Langley-based NASA program now has money to try to fly another X-43A at Mach 10 by early fall.