Monday, March 29, 2004

And They Call it a Scramjet

Speaking of aircraft (see below), something HUGE happened this past weekend. NASA successfully field-tested the first ever "scramjet," a ultra-high-speed air breathing jet technology that has been in development for decades. Check this article out for more information.

For me, this is very exciting news. If you think about it, there really haven't been very many advances in normal flight or space flight in the last 25 years. There have been A LOT of failed projects along the way - American replacements for the space shuttle, the Russian Buran shuttle (which is now rotting in a downtown Moscow park), lots of talk of space tourism - and not very much success. But now NASA has been able to test a whole new engine concept, one which can propel vehicles faster than ever before right up to the edges of space. The scramjet test vehicle, the X-43A, broke the world record for air-breathing engines, traveling at 8,000 km/h for 11 seconds. NASA also says that the engine will eventually be able to reach much higher speeds.

The advantage of this technology is that scramjet-assisted space vehicles can launch payloads at a fraction of the cost of exclusively rocket-powered lift vehicles. Scramjets require only a relatively small amount of hydrogen fuel and air, taken in through intakes, to operate, meaning that the vehicles can be lighter (carrying less fuel) and can carry larger payloads (with less space taken up with engines and fuel). In the future, satellites might be lifted to space by reusable vehicles that use normal jet engines to take off from a runway and reach supersonic speeds, scramjet engines to reach hypersonic speeds and the edge of the atmosphere, and then rocket boosters to achieve orbit.

Now that the concept of the scramjet has been proven in the field, other groups are going to start tinkering with the technology. If all goes well, by the time I'm 50, we'll all be able to fly from Ontario to Australia in well under an hour. Wouldn't that be nice?

Then again, a similar dream was envisioned for the Concorde back when it was first introduced, and look what's happened to it now. Time will tell if industry can make the technology cheap enough for everyone to use.


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