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Hyper-X, the flight vehicle for which is designated as X-43A, is an experimental flight-research program seeking to demonstrate airframe-integrated, "air-breathing" engine technologies that promise to increase payload capacity for future vehicles, including hypersonic aircraft (faster than Mach 5) and reusable space launchers. This multiyear program is currently underway at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California. The Hyper-X schedule calls for its first flight later this year (2000).
Hyper-X is a joint program, with Dryden sharing responsibility with NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia. Dryden's primary role is to fly three unpiloted X-43A research vehicles to validate engine technologies and hypersonic design tools as well as the hypersonic test facility at Langley. Langley manages the program and leads the technology development effort.
The Hyper-X Program seeks to significantly expand the speed boundaries of air-breathing propulsion by being the first aircraft to demonstrate an airframe-integrated, scramjet-powered free flight. Scramjets (supersonic-combustion ramjets) are ramjet engines in which the airflow through the whole engine remains supersonic. Scramjet technology is challenging because only limited testing can be performed in ground facilities. Long duration, full-scale testing requires flight research.
Scramjet engines are air-breathing, capturing their oxygen from the atmosphere. Current spacecraft, such as the Space Shuttle, are rocket powered, so they must carry both fuel and oxygen for propulsion. Scramjet technology-based vehicles need to carry only fuel. By eliminating the need to carry oxygen, future hypersonic vehicles will be able to carry heavier payloads.
Another unique aspect of the X-43A vehicle is the airframe integration. The body of the vehicle itself forms critical elements of the engine. The forebody acts as part of the intake for airflow and the aft section serves as the nozzle.
The X-43A vehicles were manufactured by Micro Craft, Inc., Tullahoma, Tennessee. Orbital Sciences Corporation, Chandler, Arizona, built the Pegasus rocket booster used to launch the X-43 vehicles. For the Dryden research flights, the Pegasus rocket booster and attached X-43 will be air launched by Dryden's B-52 "Mothership." After release from the B-52, the booster will accelerate the X-43A vehicle to the established test conditions (Mach 7 to 10) at an altitude of approximately 100,000 feet where the X-43 will separate from the booster and fly under its own power and preprogrammed control.