Tomorrow, a hypersonic aircraft will zip above the Pacific Ocean at Mach 6 for 300 seconds—twice as long as any previous flight at that speed. Just how fast is Mach 6? A blazing 3,600mph—meaning it could get you from Los Angeles to New York in 46 minutes, the Los Angeles Times reports. Scientists have long aimed to sustain hypersonic flight for more than just a few minutes, and tomorrow's flight is a key test for an experimental aircraft called the X-51A WaveRider, housed at the Mojave Desert's Edwards Air Force Base.
"Attaining sustained hypersonic flight is like going from propeller-driven aircraft to jet aircraft," says one expert, and it's important for the future of everything from spacecraft and military aircraft to missiles and passenger planes. But, though NASA and the Pentagon are both financing research into hypersonic flight, results so far have been less than promising. One 2011 test flight ended with the aircraft's skin peeling away. And, though a 2010 WaveRider flight was successful, a subsequent flight last year ended prematurely.