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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

NASA Begins Test Sequence Of Experiemental New Jet Engine

Aired March 27, 2004 - 16:59   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WHITFIELD: Hello. I'm Fredricka Whitfield from Atlanta. "People in the News" is coming up next, but first our top story. We're keeping a close watch on NASA scientists, and they're in their final preparations now for the test of their experimental hypersonic aircraft. You're looking at the B-52 bomber right now at about 40,000 feet. We've been anticipating that it would drop its Pegasus booster rocket that would come right from beneath there, and then once that reaches about 100,000 feet, then a hydrogen powered scram (ph) jet engine will kick in, and the plan is that that unmanned aircraft would be able to surpass the sound of speed.
And in about 20 seconds from now, they're going to be reaching that milestone where they'll be able to drop the Pegasus and we're waiting for that to happen right now. Just below that Pegasus is what they call the X-43A and that's able to reach speeds of more than Mach 7. And there it is, incredible pictures you're able to see happening right now of this launch as it speeds off from the B-52 bomber. Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Supersonic.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Attitudes remain nominal.

Motor pressure is nominal.

The attitude is nominal

WHITFIELD: You can see that Pegasus, that has just been released from the B-52 shooting off and it will then reach about 100,000 feet. Our Dan Sieberg, science techonology correspondent is on the line with us to tell us a little bit more about this. And that's indeed what it's doing, correct Dan? You were explaining earlier, it has to reach a 100,000 feet before there's yet another separation.

DANIEL SIEBERG, CNN TECHONOLOGY CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Exactly, Fred. We're going to lose sight of this thing pretty quickly. It's traveling very fast, almost at MACH 7. We should point out, this is not the trail from the experimental vehicle, this is the Pegasus rocket that's needed to get the X-43A up to this high speed.

It's very small. The X-43A is only about 12 feet long, about 2,800 pounds. The reason it's very light is that it is not carrying any liquid oxygen fuel tanks on board. That's the key to all this technology. Because it's so light, the future parameters and possibilities for this are limitless, if it all works. Because what it does, it scoop in, or suck in oxygen that's needed in order to combust and create this enormous thrust to get up to, they hope, about MACH 7, which is 5,000 miles per hour.

The hope, if it all works out, it will perform about 6 minutes worth about aerodynamic maneuvers up there. Either way, successful or not, it will plunge down into the ocean.

It's very hard to tell from this angle right now when it will actually release the X-43A aircraft. Because it's so high, obviously, it's almost impossible to see what's happening at this point and to tell what's going on.

This is a very simple concept in terms of the physics involved, but the execution is very difficult and fairly dangerous. NASA failed to do this a couple of years ago. This is the second attempt that they're trying to do. Once it's at this 100,000 altitude point, we'll release this X-43A aircraft.

And NASA is trying to have a sense of humor about all of this. Either way it will plunge into the ocean, so they're saying that unlike the Mars mission they will discover water, they know they will discover water.

But they are hoping this will have future possibilities for air travel, for even for spacecraft. Obviously, going that fast, you could save a lot of time traveling, say, from New York to London in under 5 hours. That is a ways off into the future.

We're seeing, again, this Pegasus rocket that was dropped off underneath this B-52 bomber. Basically, it's sort of like a sling shot. It needs help, because it doesn't have these liquid oxygen tanks on board the X-43A, it needs help to get off the Earth. It doesn't have any booster capability like the shuttle. Liquid oxygen if very heavy, but this technology would allow it to get that help, at that altitude, and then shoot it off, unmanned of course at this point. It's sort of ironic that a 50 year old aircraft, the B-52, is helping the future of aircraft and spacecraft get to this point.

Some amazing pictures that we're seeing.

WHITFIELD: What an incredible sight it is. And what an amazing springboard in which to use the B-52 in order to make all of this happen.

So, when you say that the unmanned aircraft will eventually plunge into the Pacific Ocean, how much time are we talking between now and when that happens?

SIEBERG: NASA says they should know within -- they will at least know within the next hour exactly how it performed. And they will be having a press conference within about an hour, maybe 2 hours to discuss what happened. It is preprogrammed to perform all of these maneuvers. They will not be recovering the X-43A, they will be gathering data from it while it's up there and trying to determine if it is successful or not. They will be plunging it into the ocean.

It was launched from Edwards Airforce Base in Southern California about 3:40 Eastern time. It took them about an hour or so, an hour and a half to get to the point where they felt like it was safe enough to launch it. That's about 400 miles away from Edwards Airforce Base in Southern California.

The weather conditions had to be perfect. They were. They decided it was a go for a launch today. And this Pegasus rocket -- again, it's a fairly dangerous and involved situation for NASA here. They had to be very careful with everything involved. It's almost unheard of to see a Pegasus rocket launched from the wing of an aircraft. That is a very unique situation for NASA.

So, there were a lot of preperation involved here. They wanted to make sure everything went off according to plan. And so far, it looks like it is.

WHITFIELD: Wow. And so again, the Pegasus was dropped from the B-52 at about 40,000 feet. And then, at about 100,000 feet, that's when the separation would take place between the Pegasus and the X- 43A. How much time on that?

SIEBERG: Exactly, and that's when the front of the X-43A aircraft opens up and starts to suck in oxygen. It basically scoops in oxygen, which is needed in order to combine it with a bit of hydrogen and creat this thrust, because it's not carrying any fuel on board.

They really have a, almost milliseconds of a window to make this work, becuase without that window of time, if it doesn't work, it could fall apart, it could start its descent without being able to suck in this oxygen that's needed for it to keep going. And they hope will reach this MACH 7 speed. Again, about 5,000 miles per hour, 7 times the speed of sound.

And, you know, the X-43A does have the unique design. It's only about 12 feet long, about 2,800 pounds, which is very light. To give you an idea of how much liquid oxygen weighs, liquid oxygen tanks on the shuttle add about 10 times the weight of the shuttle to the shuttle itself. So, it's certainly very heavy.

We're seeing some NASA officials.

WHITFIELD: Looks like they're taking a short little break.

SIEBERG: They look happy.

WHITFIELD: They look very happy. But the end of this mission takes it about an hour from now, you were saying, before the mission's complete end. That X-43A would begin its descent down to the Pacific Ocean.

Dan Sieberg, thanks very much for joining us on the telephone and giving us a great explanation of what indeed is an incredible experiment, mission taking place at NASA over the waters of the Pacific.

And we'll have more headlines in 30 minutes. "PEOPLE IN THE NEWS," begins right now.

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