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Hypersonic 'WaveRider' Failed

An artist's rendition of an X-51A WaveRider (in white) attached to the wing of a B-52.
Pratt & Whitney
An artist's rendition of an X-51A WaveRider (in white) attached to the wing of a B-52.

An experimental aircraft that designers hoped would hit 3,600 mph in a test flight over the Pacific on Tuesday "suffered a control failure" and failed in its attempt to go hypersonic, The Associated Press writes.

Its report follows earlier word from Wired magazine's Danger Room blog that it had been told by an "insider familiar with the test" that:

"A problem with a missile's fin caused a loss of control before the engine could kick in. The missile's scramjet engine was supposed to [then] power the missile at hypersonic speeds for 300 seconds. Now the indication is that it may not have even had the chance."

This was the third test of an X-51A WaveRider over the ocean off Southern California. According to the AP, the first one "achieved Mach 5 for about 140 seconds in 2010. A second WaveRider flight last year ended prematurely with the craft trying to restart its engine until it plunged into the Pacific."

As the AP adds, "the Pentagon has been testing hypersonic technologies in hopes of being able to deliver strikes around the globe within minutes."

It would also be nice if someday, as we wrote on Tuesday, this technology could get you from Los Angeles to New York City in less than an hour. But it would seem that many more tests will need to be done before that ever happens (if it ever does).

Update at 2:50 p.m. ET. "Subsystem" Problem:

"It is unfortunate that a problem with this subsystem [the 'cruiser control fins'] caused a termination before we could light the Scramjet engine," said X-51A Program Manager Charlie Brink via a news release Wednesday. "All our data showed we had created the right conditions for engine ignition and we were very hopeful to meet our test objectives." (Via The Washington Post's ideas@innovations blog.)

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.