People on a regular commute from London to New York will be thrilled with the idea of a flight that lasts only 35 minutes.
A joint US-Australian military research team sent a scramjet attached to a rocket booster to an altitude of 172 miles (278km) at Mach 7.5 – or seven times the speed of sound.
Today’s test is one of 10 trials of the technology being run at the world’s largest land testing range, Woomera in South Australia, and at Norway’s Andoya Rocket Range.
Mach 7.5 classes it as ‘hypersonic travel‘, which is defined as travel at more than five times the speed of sound.
For instance, a trip from Sydney to London could be done in two hours for the 10,500 miles (17,000 km) flight.
And the 3460 mile (5571km) trip from London to New York could take just 35 minutes.
Engineers involved in the programme – called Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HIFiRE) – eventually want the engine to run at Mach 7 or 5370mph.
Michael Smart a hypersonics expert from the University of Queensland said the scramjet was a supersonic combustion engine that uses oxygen from the atmosphere for fuel, making it lighter and faster than fuel-carrying rockets.
He said: ‘The practical application of that is you could fly long distances over the Earth very, very quickly but also that it’s very useful as an alternative to a rocket for putting satellites into space.’
To fly at hypersonic speed – Mach 5 and above – requires a different type of engine such as a supersonic-combustion ramjet, or scramjet.These engines have no moving parts.
Instead of the rotating compressor and turbine in a jet engine, air is compressed and expanded by complex systems of shockwaves under the front of the aircraft, inside the inlet and under the fuselage at the rear.
Travel becomes hypersonic when temperatures get so hot that air molecules become unstable and begin losing electrons. At these speeds the air becomes an electrically-charged field.
At supersonic speeds, air moves through a series of channels until is slowed down to a point where fuel can be more easily injected and ignited. This releases energy and thrust.
At hypersonic speed, this air moves even faster, which makes it difficult to slow down to the speed of sound and therefore requires specialist fuel and technologies, as seen in engines including the pulse detonation engine (PDE).
The next test, scheduled for 2017, would involve the scramjet engine separating from the rocket booster and flying on its own, he added.
The first test was conducted in 2009 with the project expected to be completed in 2018.
The latest project, which also involves aerospace giant Boeing, Nasa and German space agency DLR, is one of a number attempting to introduce new supersonic passenger aircraft.