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The X-51 Hypersonic missile will be launched into action later this month.  (Source: Weapons Blog)

Another view of the craft  (Source: U.S. Air Force)
The U.S. Air Force is set to successfully launch a Boeing X-51 for 300 seconds of hypersonic flight

By the end of this month, the U.S. Air Force will begin a series of hypersonic tests that will send a scramjet into the atmosphere for about five minutes, at nearly five times the speed of sound. A scramjet is a supersonic combustion ramjet, while a ramjet is a jet engine using the engine's forward motion to compress air.
If all goes as planned, this will be the first time that an aircraft will have flown at such speeds for more than a few seconds of time.

In previous attempts, the NASA X-43 was powered-up for just 10 seconds of flight.  The X-43 was tested four times in 2004 and was hydrogen-powered.

This time around, the U.S. Air Force will be testing the X-51 Waverunner, which runs on compressed air that ignites fuel by combustion.  The X-51 is designed to be dropped from beneath a B-52 bomber.

A rocket booster will ignite and accelerate the Waverunner.  It will then run its course -- from Mach 1 to Mach 6 -- under its own power,  at which time the nose of the X-51 is expected to reach at least 1,480 degrees F.

The aircraft fuel will then be piped through tubes around the engine surface and will help warm the fuel to the temperature needed to ignite it as well as draw off heat to keep the engine from melting.  

According to 
Popular Mechanics,  the X-51 Waverunner is a global strike missile that is part of the Prompt Global Strike research project being developed by Boeing and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 

The Waverunner is said to be a warhead in the making, which will be filled with thousands of rods 12 times as destructive as a .50-caliber bullet, targeted to shower a designated area.

It is being developed for precision, speed, and range and has been designed to strike any place on the planet in an estimated 60 minutes.

The long-term goal is to design airplanes and missiles that would reach Mach 25.  The U.S. Air Force plans to conduct up to four tests of the Waverunner this year.

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RE: Some addl info
By FoxFour on 5/9/2010 9:03:38 PM , Rating: 2
To be honest, with such an expensive delivery system, I was expecting a much more destructive type of payload than this kinda crap.

I'm amazed that no one here has mentioned Footfall , written by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven. This type of weapon system (the orbitally-launched variant) is featured in the novel. When you do the math, you'll see that it's incredibly devastating. Something like this can make mincemeat out of a tank column with appropriate projectile dimensions and velocity.

RE: Some addl info
By porkpie on 5/9/2010 9:23:47 PM , Rating: 3
Footfall was referencing Pournelle's "Thor" KE-based bombardment system. The projectiles in Thor were much higher energy (at NEO, the energy would be 30+ MJoules per kg) and, of course, much larger and heavier as well.

RE: Some addl info
By phazers on 5/10/2010 12:04:13 PM , Rating: 3
Footfall was referencing Pournelle's "Thor" KE-based bombardment system.

IIRC the original KE weapon of choice was Heinlein's idea, of using lunar boulders weighing a few tons apiece, strapping an iron girdle around them, then launching by an EM catapault at targets on Earth. Heinlein included steering rockets so as to provide precise targeting and also a last-minute abort procedure should the launchers change their minds. Effective KE was about 15 or 20 kilotons of TNT, since the Moon is near the top of the Earth's gravity potential energy. Sorta like an upscale railgun with really cheap ammunition :P.

RE: Some addl info
By porkpie on 5/10/2010 1:33:57 PM , Rating: 3

RE: Some addl info
By ekv on 5/9/2010 10:05:06 PM , Rating: 3
... and (ostensibly) still against international treaty to place weapons in orbit.

[Considering the looming retirement of the Shuttle AND not having a replacement anytime soon, it's in our best interests not to stir that pot].

Though Edward Teller, of Brilliant Pebbles and nuclear weapons fame, agrees that this kind of weapon packs quite a wallop.

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