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1970’s Technology in 2012

August 13, 2012

I was expecting that the Register would have an article on this one, but I couldn’t find anything other than the Daily Mail.  Don’t pay attention to the pictures down the right side…

The military is testing a scramjet craft in an unmanned test over the Pacific.

The latest test will see the craft freefall for four seconds over the Pacific before its booster rocket engine ignites and propels the nearly wingless aircraft for 30 seconds to about Mach 4.5, before being jettisoned.

Then the cruiser’s scramjet engine, notable because it has virtually no moving parts, ignites.

The WaveRider is expected to accelerate to about Mach 6 as it climbs to nearly 70,000 feet.

A scramjet is a very simple jet engine that essentially uses the speed of the aircraft to compress air coming into the intake.  Most jets have a series of fans that push the air down the intake tube and compress it that way.  The scramjet has been a concept since the early 60’s, and there were prototypes on the drawing board as early as the 70’s.  Of course, no practical test was ever done, and now we’re talking about testing technology that could have been done 40 years ago today.

Some would argue that we haven’t done anything because structural technology hadn’t advanced enough to support the creation of a vehicle.  Nope.  If anything, telemetry hasn’t been good enough to actually track the progress of the vehicle, and not even the Air Force would be brave enough to drop a human into one of these things.  And therein lies the problem in my mind.

I can remember complaints from military writers that we weren’t pursuing a Mach-3 bomber in the ’80’s (and before), because we needed to get to Russia faster.  In the end, the preference was to maintain a stable platform with some serious defensive measures that could carry the tonnage and range out with rocket-propelled support munitions.  As we’ve seen since then, that turned out to be the B-52.  You probably can’t put someone in a B-52 these days who’s actually older than the plane in which they’re flying, but it can still out-turn most of the fighters in the sky and the electronics are top-notch.

Getting somewhere fast was really the perview of the spy plane (and that “somewhere” was “out of harm’s way”).  As satellite observation technology improved, even that need went away.  Now the only need for speed is delivery of munitions.  So it’s telling that we’re using a cold-war-era bomber to test a specialized engine that essentially is only there to deliver a warhead faster to a target.

As to civilian travel… good luck.  We can’t get a good case together to make commercial jets supersonic, even though it would take very little investment to do so.  Going supersonic over land masses is considered a bad idea, and even Pacific travel wouldn’t benefit a lot at this point given the costs of fuel and liability.

So I’m still excited to see the test, and I hope we learn a lot about what we could have done.  I just wonder why we couldn’t make the case for it when we really could have used it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2012 3:56 pm

    You’ve seen the unfortunate result of that test — an “elevator ride” to the sea.

    It’s hard to for me to imagine a scenario wherein scramjet propulsion is commonplace. I can picture an Orion launch, using nuclear propulsion — but by the Chinese. They’d only be able to lift tens of thousands of tons of payload to orbit in one shot with such a system, so it may be of little consequence. It might look a bit like this:

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

    • August 19, 2012 9:54 pm

      It’s only commercially viable if the military has a solid use, and I don’t believe there’s a real need for a Mach 6 jet-propelled device. Rocket, sure, jet, no.

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