The US Air Force completed a nearly decade-long test program this week with the successful launch of an unmanned aircraft into hypersonic velocity, flying at more than five times the speed of sound.
Air Force officials announced Friday that the X-51A Wave Rider flew for more than three minutes Wednesday, a one point hitting a speed of Mach 5.1, according to the Associated Press. The successful flight marked a turning point for the X-51A, which was designed with scramjet technology that’s capable of delivering weapons strikes around the world in only minutes.
The aircraft was designed to reach Mach 6 (six times the speed of sound) but the Air Force deemed Wednesday’s flight a success because the previous three attempts either ended in highly publicized failures or failed to reach the desired top speed.
While the immediate future for hypersonic scramjet propulsion will come in the form of faster and more effective cruise missiles, scientists have speculated that in the long term, the technology could make a London-New York passenger flight possible in under an hour.
Last year, when asked why such technology is necessary, Air Force officials cited a failed attempt of the life of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Upon learning of his location, military intelligence was able summon Naval ships to fire cruise missiles at the target within 80 minutes. This new technology, the Air Force told the Los Angeles Times in 2012, would cut that response time down to twelve minutes.