A new jet engine designed to fly at seven times the speed of sound appears to have been successfully tested.
The scramjet engine, the Hyshot III, was launched at Woomera, 500km north of Adelaide in Australia, on the back of a two stage Terrier-Orion rocket.
Once 314km up, the Hyshot III fell back to Earth, reaching speeds analysts hope will have topped Mach 7.6 (9,000km/h).
It is hoped the British-designed Hyshot III will pave the way for ultra fast, intercontinental air travel.
An international team of researchers is presently analysing data from the experiment, to see if it met its objectives.
The scientists had just six seconds to monitor its performance before the £1m engine crashed into the ground.
Rachel Owen, a researcher from UK defence firm QinetiQ, which designed the scramjet, said it looked like everything had gone according to plan.
The vehicle had followed a "nominal trajectory" and landed 400km down the range, Ms Owen said.
A scramjet - or supersonic combustion ramjet - is mechanically very simple. It has no moving parts and takes all of the oxygen it needs to burn hydrogen fuel from the air.
This makes it more efficient than a conventional rocket engine as it does not need to carry its own oxygen supply, meaning that a vehicle using one could potentially carry a larger payload.
As the engine continues its downward path the fuel in the scramjet ignites automatically. This experiment was expected to start working at a height of 35km.
However scramjets do not begin to work until they reach five times the speed of sound.
At this speed the air passing through the engine is compressed and hot enough for ignition to occur. Rapid expansion of the exhaust gases creates the forward thrust.
Making sure the flight happens correctly is incredibly difficult, according to Dr Allan Paull, project leader of the Hyshot programme at the University of Queensland.
"You are dealing with extremes of conditions. You're working out on the edge and with a lot of the stuff no-one has ever tried before," he told the BBC News website. "You've got to expect things to go wrong".
'Flying times cut'
The test was the first of three test flights planned for this year by the international Hyshot consortium.
It will be followed soon by the test flight of another Hyshot engine designed by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa). This will be followed in June by the launch of an engine that will fly at Mach 10, designed by the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO).
The first Hyshot engine was launched in 2001 but the test flight failed when the rocket carrying the engine flew off course.
The Hyshot tests will bring the idea of a commercial scramjet one step closer to reality.
In the first instance, these would probably be used to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit but many have speculated that they could also allow passenger airlines to fly between London and Sydney in just two hours.
Although this vision may be many years off, it was given a huge boost when Nasa successfully flew its X-43A plane over the Pacific Ocean in 2004. The unmanned aircraft flew at 10 times the speed of sound, a new world speed record.
SCRAMJET ENGINE TEST 1. Two-stage rocket lifts the scramjet engine to altitude of 330km
2. Rocket free-falls back to Earth, reaching speeds of Mach 8
3. Experiment takes place at Mach 7.6 between 35-23km from ground and lasts 6 seconds
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/03/25 07:28:48 GMT
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