The X-51A Waverider — a hypersonic technology that could one day transport passengers from London to New York in an hour — launched successfully on Tuesday off the coast of California, but failed to complete its full mission, according to the Air Force.
The Waverider, which was attached from the wing of a B-52 bomber, separated as planned. However, after 16 seconds in the air, one of its cruiser control fins malfunctioned and it was unable to maintain control. Program officials are currently determining what went wrong. Before the mission, the Air Force said they wouldn’t be recovering the Waverider.
The U.S. Air Force, NASA and the Pentagon are collectively testing a new kind of technology that can reach “hypersonic” speeds within the atmosphere, defined as anything above Mach 5. The X-51A Waverider was expected to hit Mach 6 for about 300 seconds later before crashing into the Pacific Ocean. The flight would also transmit data back to the testers.
“It is unfortunate that a problem with this subsystem caused a termination before we could light the Scramjet engine,” said Charlie Brink, X-51A Program Manager for Air Force Research Laboratory, in a statement. “All our data showed we had created the right conditions for engine ignition and we were very hopeful to meet our test objectives.”
The Waverider was designed to propel itself with a combination of scramjet technology, which uses oxygen from the atmosphere as fuel, and its ability to ride the shockwave it generates from breaking the sound barrier. The Air Force hopes future weapons may be able to use the tech to evade anti-missile systems, since no missile can travel as fast.
The technology also has the potential to transport cargo and even people across the world in minutes instead of hours and days. The program was developed in 2004 and is said to have cost about $140 million, according to military analysis site GlobalSecuriy.org. This was the third of four Waveriders built.
“This particular control subsystem had proven reliable in the previous two flights of the X-51A including the historic May 2010 flight when the Waverider flew for more than three minutes at Mach 4.88 under scramjet power – nearly five times the speed of sound,” the U.S. Airforce said in a statement.
It’s unknown at this time if the remaining vehicle will fly.