How Hypersonic Planes Work

By: Kevin Bonsor

The X-43A is the first aircraft to reach hypersonic speeds using an air-breathing engine. See more rocket pictures.
Photo courtesy NASA

NASA's experimental space plane, the X-43A, set a new speed record for aircraft on November 16, 2004. In the unmanned test flight, the plane reached Mach 10 -- 10 times the speed of sound, or about 6,600 miles (10,600 kilometers) per hour. This flight broke the previous speed record of Mach 7, set in March 2004 by the X-43A in a previous test flight.

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What sets the X-43A apart from other rocket-powered aircraft is that it is powered by a scramjet engine. Instead of using onboard oxygen to combust the hydrogen fuel, the scramjet scoops up oxygen as it travels through the atmosphere. By eliminating the need for onboard oxygen, cutting the weight of the spacecraft, the X-43A could lead to cheaper Earth-to-orbit space travel.

In this article, we'll take a look at hypersonic planes and learn about their air-breathing engines.