Friday, April 30, 2010

Helicam Combines Toy Helicopter and Camera for HD Videos

  • 2:41 pm |
  • Categories: Cameras, Hacks, Mods and DIY
  • helivideo

    In a quest to get the perfect shot, Eric Austin, a Texas-based videographer, found a neat way to fuse a remote controlled helicopter and a Canon DSLR camera so he could shoot aerial videos easily and get the kind of footage that would otherwise be difficult to pull off.

    “I took a hobbyshop helicopter and modified it to hold a camera, so I can get low altitude, close and tight aerial shots,” Austin told

    An amateur videographer turned pro, Austin got interested in remote-controlled photography just four months ago.

    “As I did more photos and videos, I realized I could develop a niche where I could use the advancements in technology to provide the kind of photos most people can’t get easily,” he says.

    Austin is one of the many hobbyist photographers who are finding ways to use drones and remote-controlled helicopter toys to get a more attractive camera angle. Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson helms a site called DIY Drones where users have found a way to use unmanned aerial vehicles to do aerial photography. Last year, New York City photographer Anthony Jacobs showed a helicam built using a German helicopter rig called MikroKopter. Jacobs used his helicam rig to shoot videos of neighborhooods in the city.

    Austin, who has a website devoted to his RC helicopter videography, says he wanted to do something similar and offer HD-quality video and photos.

    That’s why, he says, he decided to create a rig that would be reliable and produce the kind of footage that could be used by professionals. And as this clip shows, the video can be interesting.

    Aerial video with a Canon 5D , 7D from Eric AUSTIN on Vimeo.

    So far, Austin has helped shoot footage for TV shows including History Channel’s Sliced series.

    Austin started with a remote-controlled helicopter called Align T-REX 700 and modified it to carry a special frame and camera mount. He tweaked the landing gear for the helicopter, covering it with a bright pink foam from the “noodles” used in swimming pools.

    “The color stands out when I am flying the helicopter outdoors,” says Austin. “And if I crash into the water, my whole equipment won’t go to the bottom. It will be ruined, but at least I will get my gear back.” Austin says he hasn’t crashed his helicopter yet, but the foam ensures that in case of a hard landing, the equipment is less likely to completely fall apart.

    He adjusts the camera’s settings when it’s on the ground and presses the Record button right before takeoff. For still images, Austin says he uses an external timer that activates the shutter every few seconds.

    To create his flying video rig, Austin says he spent hours on the online discussion forums at the website.

    “I didn’t know anyone to talk to,” he says. “And then realized the only place to go was online where people were discussing this.”

    One of the more challenging shoots that Austin has done with his helicam was flying over a cliff that was about 25 feet high with a river below. And he didn’t crash the copter.

    “The probability that a crash will happen is there, but so far, I have been careful,” he says.

    To download video, Austin has set up a 5.8-GHz video downlink feed using an on-board wireless transmitter.

    All of this didn’t come cheap. Austin estimates the entire rig cost him about $15,000. But for those at home, who want to do something similar, he says there are cheaper alternatives.

    “I went for the best and most expensive components because I didn’t want to risk it failing mid-air,” he says. “But you can get an RC helicopter for about $400 and put a point-and-shoot camera on it.”

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    Pentagon’s Mach 20 Glider Disappears, Whacking ‘Global Strike’ Plans

  • 4:49 pm |
  • Categories: DarpaWatch

    htv_2The Pentagon’s controversial plan to hit terrorists half a planet away suffered a setback this weekend, after an experimental hypersonic glider disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.

    In its first flight test. the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) was supposed to be rocket-launched from California to the edge of space. Then the HTV-2 would could screaming back into the atmosphere, maneuvering at twenty times times the speed of sound before landing north of the Kwajalein Atoll, 30 minutes later and 4100 nautical miles away. Thinly wedge-shaped for better lift, equipped with autonomous navigation for more precision, and made of carbon-carbon to withstand the assault of hypersonic flight, the hope was it could fly farther and more accurately at a lower angle of attack than other craft returning to Earth.

    At least, that was the idea. Instead, nine minutes after launch, Darpa researchers lost contact with the HTV-2. They’re still trying to figure out why. The agency says the flight test wasn’t a total bust: The craft deployed from its rocket booster, performed some maneuvers in the air, and “achieved controlled flight within the atmosphere at over Mach 20,” Darpa spokesperson Johanna Jones says.

    But it’s bad news for the Pentagon “prompt global strike” program — a burgeoning and hotly-debated effort to almost-instantly attack targets thousands of miles away. The Defense Department is pursuing three different families of technologies to accomplish the task. One is to re-arm nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. But that runs the risk of accidentally triggering a response from another atomic power, who might mistake it for a nuke. A second effort is to build shorter-range cruise missiles than can fly at five or six times the speed of sound; that effort hit some recent turbulence when flight tests for the X-51 Waverider, scheduled for December 2009, were pushed until May 2010. Something like an armed version of the HTV-2 is the third choice.

    “There’s always a concern that a conventional warhead on an ICBM might be confused with a nuclear device - what can you do to prove otherwise?” Dr. Mark Lewis, the former chief scientist of the Air Force, tells Danger Room. ”With a high lift vehicle, your trajectory would be so different that no one would likely confuse it with something more sinister.”

    Brian Weeden, a technology advisor for the Secure World Foundation, agrees. “This thing itself is not a weapon. But it’s designed to lead to a precision strike weapon,” he says.

    But the first step is to figure out what went wrong over the Pacific. Darpa says its investigation is ongoing.

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    Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    THAI to cut its flights by up to 15% as demand slumps

    Thai Airways International (THAI) is considering an overall cutback in flight capacity starting next month to reflect the trend towards a downturn in bookings caused by escalating political turmoil in Thailand.

    A passenger checks in at a THAI counter at Suvarnabhumi Airport.

    Managers in charge of several territories where the flag carrier flies have been asked to review and rationalise the capacities on their respective routes to match the slowdown in traffic demand, especially through its Bangkok hub.

    The size of the cutback could be between 10% and 15% of the current scale, which had already been trimmed recently on top of a seasonal reduction that took place at the end of March, according to a senior THAI executive.

    The six-month summer flight programme typically sees the majority of airlines including THAI slash their capacities by between 30% and 40% compared to the winter programme, when travel demand is high.

    “The prolonged political unrest and the absence of a solution warrant a reduction in our capacity,’’ said the executive.

    “We don’t want to fly half-empty planes and see our balance sheets turn red again,’’ he added.

    Thailand is increasingly seen as a dangerous place to visit. Recent violence in Bangkok has so far claimed 26 lives and injured nearly 1,000.

    Anti-government protesters known as the red shirts began occupying parts of Bangkok in mid-March, forcing some five-star hotels and shopping malls to close and devastating the country’s vital tourism industry.

    More than 40 countries have advised their citizens to reconsider unnecessary travel to Thailand or to avoid visiting the Kingdom altogether.

    The effects of the civil unrest in Thailand have yet to be reflected on the airline’s records, however.

    So far, the impact of the anti-government protests has been obscured by flows of passenger stranded by the closure of European airspace due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland being ferried to their destinations.

    Until recently, THAI still managed to fill 75% of its seats, above the breakeven load factor of about 65%.

    “There seems to be a foregone conclusion that the tsunami is gathering pace and will hit us hard when the backlog of stranded passengers is cleared this week,” the THAI executive noted.

    It seems that tourists’ confidence in Thailand is once more severely battered, and the road to recovery might be long and strenuous.

    The arrival of low-season travel is expected to add to the impact inflicted by the unresolved political deadlock, he added.

    The capacity reduction may take all possible forms — reducing frequencies, deploying lower-capacity aircraft, merging flights and adjusting flight timetables.

    For instance, THAI has already decided to adjust its capacity on its Indian routes.

    Effective from May 1, the carrier will reduce its services from Bangkok to Kolkata to five flights a week from seven currently, replacing B777-300s with the lower-capacity B777-200s on the Bangkok-Delhi route, which will reduce the numbers of seats on each flight by about 50.

    Thailand's international arrivals plunge drastically in wake of red-shirt turmoil

    Published on April 28, 2010

    Foreign tourist arrivals at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, the Kingdom's main international gateway, have plunged dramatically, due to the protracted anti-government protests.

    The average number of arrivals is now about 20,000 a day, down from 30,000 prior to the start of protests at the Pan Fah Bridge on March 14, Tourism and Sports Minister Chumpol Silapa-archa said yesterday.

    The situation has worsened since Silom Road, in the heart of the city's central business district, was also sealed off in addition to protesters' occupying the Rajprasong area, a major tourism and shopping district.

    The Tourism and Sports Ministry is seeking Bt1.6 billion to stimulate tourism in both domestic and international markets, with plans for joint promotional packages in cooperation with foreign airlines and travel agencies.

    As well, visas will be issued free of charge to prospective foreign visitors, including 5,800 Chinese tourists who will arrive from May 6-10, while tax incentives will be given to Thai firms holding seminars and meetings at domestic tourist destinations.

    In cooperation with foreign travel agencies, the ministry may also provide extra insurance to foreign travellers in Thailand.

    Tourism Council of Thailand chairman Kongkrit Hiranyakit said the political conflict would likely reduce tourist arrivals 10 per cent year on year.

    "If the Cabinet approves the Bt1.6-billion budget, we should be able to engineer a recovery in the fourth quarter, which is the high season," he said.

    In addition to this budget, the government has been asked to provide another Bt5-billion soft-loan facility to help businesses in areas directly hit by the protest.

    The council also proposed the government pay compensation to workers in the Rajprasong area, covering 75 per cent of their wages from March 14 to the end of next month.

    The council expects the number of tourists to drop 10 per cent to 12.7 million this year, from 14.1 million last year.

    In conjunction with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), the council will issue a statement clarifying the political situation for those foreign markets now warning their citizens about travelling to Thailand.

    TAT governor Suraphon Svetasreni said his agency would join hands with foreign business partners, especially international airlines, to sell Thailand more aggressively, in order to counter the downturn in tourism.

    Meanwhile, major German tour company TUI yesterday announced it would suspend all tour packages to Bangkok and northern Thailand until next Monday while offering alternative destinations to its customers.

    In a statement, it said all present visitors would be sent to Phuket, in the South.

    Tuesday, April 27, 2010

    Launch of secret US space ship masks even more secret launch of new weapon

    The X-37B sits on top of an Atlas V rocket

    The X-37B sits on top of an Atlas V rocket

    Somewhere above earth is America’s latest spaceship, a 30ft craft so classified that the Pentagon will not divulge its mission nor how much it cost to build.

    The mysterious X37B, launched successfully by the US Air Force from Cape Canaveral on Thursday, using an Atlas V rocket, looks like a mini-Space Shuttle — but its mission is top secret.

    It is officially described as an orbital test vehicle. However, one of its potential uses appears to be to launch a surge of small satellites during periods of high international tension. This would enable America to have eyes and ears orbiting above any potential troublespot in the world.

    The X37B can stay in orbit for up to 270 days, whereas the Shuttle can last only 16 days. This will provide the US with the ability to carry out experiments for long periods, including the testing of new laser weapon systems. This would bring accusations that the launch of X37B, and a second vehicle planned for later this year, could lead to the militarisation of space.

    US defence officials, who would not say how much the project had cost, insisted, however, that it was “just an updated version of the Space Shuttle activities”.

    Thursday’s launch was more about testing the craft, a new generation of silica tile and a wealth of other advances that make the Shuttle look like yesterday’s space technology.

    Nasa’s X37B programme began in 1999 and ran until September 2004 when it was transferred to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency before being taken over by the US Air Force.

    The flight of the X37B is being managed by the US Air Force Space Command’s 3rd Space Experimental Squadron.

    “This bird has been through all of the shake, rattle and roll, the vibration tests, the acoustic tests that any spacecraft would go through,” said Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programmes.

    With all the focus on the launch of the secret X37B, another space launch by a Minotaur IV rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base in California received less attention.

    It was carrying the prototype of a new weapon that can hit any target around the world in less than an hour.

    The Prompt Global Strike is designed as the conventional weapon of the future. It could hit Osama bin Laden’s cave, an Iranian nuclear site or a North Korean missile with a huge conventional warhead.

    Hypersonic Cruise Missile: America's New Global Strike Weapon

    The mission: Attack anywhere in the world in less than an hour. But is the Pentagon's bold program a critical new weapon for hitting elusive targets, or a good way to set off a nuclear war?


    Launched from a B-52, the proposed X-51 hypersonic cruise missile could travel 600 miles in 10 minutes to strike elusive, fleeting targets. (Illustration by Render Room)

    A tip sets the plan in motion -- a whispered warning of a North Korean nuclear launch, or of a shipment of biotoxins bound for a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon. Word races through the American intelligence network until it reaches U.S. Strategic Command headquarters, the Pentagon and, eventually, the White House. In the Pacific, a nuclear-powered Ohio class submarine surfaces, ready for the president's command to launch.

    When the order comes, the sub shoots a 65-ton Trident II ballistic missile into the sky. Within 2 minutes, the missile is traveling at more than 20,000 ft. per second. Up and over the oceans and out of the atmosphere it soars for thousands of miles. At the top of its parabola, hanging in space, the Trident's four warheads separate and begin their screaming descent down toward the planet. Traveling as fast as 13,000 mph, the warheads are filled with scored tungsten rods with twice the strength of steel. Just above the target, the warheads detonate, showering the area with thousands of rods-each one up to 12 times as destructive as a .50-caliber bullet. Anything within 3000 sq. ft. of this whirling, metallic storm is obliterated.

    If Pentagon strategists get their way, there will be no place on the planet to hide from such an assault. The plan is part of a program -- in slow development since the 1990s, and now quickly coalescing in military circles -- called Prompt Global Strike. It will begin with modified Tridents. But eventually, Prompt Global Strike could encompass new generations of aircraft and armaments five times faster than anything in the current American arsenal. One candidate: the X-51 hypersonic cruise missile, which is designed to hit Mach 5 -- roughly 3600 mph. The goal, according to the U.S. Strategic Command's deputy commander Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler, is "to strike virtually anywhere on the face of the Earth within 60 minutes."

    The question is whether such an attack can be deployed without triggering World War III: Those tungsten-armed Tridents look, and fly, exactly like the deadliest weapons in the American nuclear arsenal.

    The military is convinced that in the coming years it will need to act with this kind of speed against threats -- terrorist leaders, smuggled nuclear or chemical arms -- that emerge and disappear in a flash. There may be only hours, or minutes, to respond. "We know how to strike precisely. We know how to strike at long distances," says Kehler, whose office is in charge of the Defense Department's Global Strike mission. "What's different now is this sense of time."

    Sneak Attack
    Click to enlarge
    Click to enlarge
    The leading candidates to deliver Prompt Global Strike's swift knockout punch are the sub-launched Trident II missile and the X-51, a cruise missile launched from a B-52 and boosted to supersonic speed by a rocket. A scramjet takes it hypersonic.
    Every strategist remembers Aug. 20, 1998, when the USS Abraham Lincoln Battle Group, stationed in the Arabian Sea, launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda training camp in eastern Afghanistan, hoping to take out Osama Bin Laden. With a top speed of 550 mph, the Tomahawks made the 1100-mile trip in 2 hours. By then, Bin Laden was gone -- missed by less than an hour, according to Richard A. Clarke, former head of U.S. counterterrorism.

    The American military already has weapons that can destroy just about anything in a matter of minutes: nuclear missiles. That terrifying capability was designed to contain Soviet adversaries. But as the Cold War recedes into memory, U.S. strategists worry that our nuclear threat is no longer credible -- that we are too muscle-bound for our own good. Are we really prepared to wipe out Tehran in retribution for a single terrorist attack? Kill millions of Chinese for invading Taiwan? The answer is no.

    Paradoxically, the weaker our enemies have grown, the less ominous our arsenal has become. Military theorists call it self-deterrence. "In today's environment, we've got zeros and ones. You can decide to engage with nuclear weapons -- or not," says Capt. Terry J. Benedict, who runs the Navy's conventional Trident program from a nondescript office a few miles from the Pentagon. "The nation's leadership needs an intermediate step-to take the action required, without crossing to the one."

    In 2001, Defense Department planners began searching for something that could hit a foe almost instantly without risking a nuclear holocaust. Most of the solutions -- unmanned bombers, faster cruise missiles, hypersonic "glide vehicles" coasting in from space -- required a decade or more of development. The Navy, however, had been testing conventionally armed Trident II missiles since 1993. With a few hundred million dollars, strategists said, the first Prompt Global Strike submarines could be ready to go in just two years.

    The $60 million conventional missile needs to be far more accurate than the nuclear version. But the multiple warheads can lock onto GPS coordinates while streaking through space. Upon entering the atmosphere, the warheads use flaps to steer to a target. With the Trident II's range of 6000 nautical miles, subs armed with the missiles could threaten a whole continent's worth of enemy positions. "Now," says Benedict, who leads the Trident conversion effort, "we've got the capability to hold all of these targets in all these hot spots at risk at one time."

    In 1988, Lockheed Martin's Trident II D5 nuclear ballistic missile entered service on Ohio class submarines. In the Prompt Global Strike program, each sub would be armed with 22 nuclear Tridents, along with two retrofitted Tridents, each with four independently targetable warheads. here's how a conventional Trident II would work.

    1 Gas pressure ejects the Trident II from a patrolling submarine. Once the missile clears the water, the first-stage engine ignites and the aerospike at the nose extends to improve aerodynamics. Stage 1 burns for approximately 65 seconds. When the Trident is locked onto targets at its maximum range (roughly 6000 nautical miles), this burn carries the missile a few hundred miles downrange at a 45-degree angle. Because all propellant must be used, the missile corkscrews to burn off excess fuel for closer targets.
    2 As stage 1 falls away from the missile, the second-stage engine ignites for another 65-second burn that carries the Trident an additional 500 to 800 miles downrange. The nose cone fairing (blue) is ejected to shed weight.
    3 After separation from stage 2, the third stage engine burns for approximately 40 seconds, concluding the boost phase and lofting the Trident II up to 600 miles above the Earth -- the altitude of some weather satellites.
    4 At the apogee of the Trident's trajectory, the third stage falls away, leaving the post-boost vehicle, or bus (red). It receives navigational updates and deploys the four individually targeted warheads (green). Traveling at 13,000 mph and accurate to 30 ft., the warheads are GPS-guided on descent by means of tiny flaps. Two types of warheads are under consideration: the fragmentation version, which shatters tungsten rods just above a target, and a bunker-busting metal "shock impactor" that relies on kinetic energy for its destructive power.

    Almost immediately, congressional critics and outside analysts attacked the missile plan. Everyone seemed satisfied that, technically, modified Tridents could meet Global Strike's requirements. But the Pentagon can't explain how the weapon will be deployed and who will be its intended target. "I just don't think they've got a plan for using these things," says a frustrated senior congressional aide.

    First, there's the matter of intelligence. If a president is going to launch the first intercontinental ballistic missile attack in history, he'll need overwhelming evidence. Our ability to nail down that kind of quality information is patchy, at best. On March 19, 2003, the United States launched 40 cruise missiles at three locations outside Baghdad in hopes of killing Saddam Hussein and other senior military officials. It turned out the former Iraqi leader wasn't in any of the locations; the strikes killed at least a dozen people, although it's not clear if they were civilians or leadership targets.

    The mission failed even though friendly forces controlled the area. At the heart of Prompt Global Strike is a much darker scenario: American troops are far from their intended target -- or the enemy's air defenses are too tough to penetrate. "So let me get this straight," says Jeffrey Lewis, a Harvard University nuclear energy and weapons analyst. "We've got exquisite, fleeting intelligence in an area of immediate concern, but no forces nearby and, miraculously, a sub in just the right spot to attack. I suppose there's some chance of that. But it's pretty small."

    Video still shows X-51 predecessor being test fired.
    Click here for the full video.
    More difficult to explain is how a conventional Trident could be launched without provoking a crisis even bigger than the one that it was meant to solve. The Navy's plan calls for arming Ohio class subs with two conventional and 22 nuclear Trident II missiles. (The Navy intends to cut its Ohio class fleet from 18 to 14 subs, with 12 in the water at any one time.) To outside observers, the subs' conventional and nuclear weapons would appear identical -- the same size, the same speed, shooting from the same location.

    Traditionally, the U.S. strategy is to shoot missiles over the North Pole. But the current, most likely Prompt Global Strike targets, North Korea and Iran, lie south of China and Russia -- which would put those countries right under a pole-launched flight path. "For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations," a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. "The launch of such a missile," Russian president Vladimir Putin said in his 2006 state of the nation address, "could provoke an inappropriate response from one of the nuclear powers, could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.

    The Navy and Strategic Command have proposed all kinds of fixes to address what a Senate Armed Services committee described as Prompt Global Strike's "nuclear ambiguity issues." The subs could be positioned in different locations for a conventional attack than for a nuclear one, military leaders argue. (But that could put the boats out of position for an instant strike.) Hotlines to Moscow and Beijing could warn leaders in those capitals of conventional missile attacks. That is, if those leaders take us at our word -- and don't warn their allies in Pyongyang or Tehran to get out of the missile's way.

    Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in a press conference, didn't seem that concerned. "Everyone in the world would know that [the missile] was conventional," he said, "after it hit within 30 minutes."

    Congress is decidedly less blasé. The House and Senate have ordered the Pentagon to come up with something more certain before they'll provide the $127 million requested in this year's budget for conventional Trident modification.

    While Trident II missiles with conventional warheads could be deployed in a few years, it may take a decade or more to develop the X-51 WaveRider. The WaveRider destroys targets by simply crashing into them at hypersonic speeds. But the technology in this remarkable missile may have wider applications, including ultrafast planes and new space vehicles. Designed by Boeing and Pratt & Whitney for the Air Force Research Laboratory, the X-51 uses just one moving part -- the fuel pump -- to hit Mach 5, or 3600 mph.

    Rocket booster The X-51 is carried to 45,000 ft. by a B-52 bomber or a fighter jet, then released. A rear-mounted Army Tactical Missile Systems rocket kicks in to propel the 1600-pound missile to Mach 4.5 and 100,000 ft. The rocket then drops away and the X-51's engine takes over.
    Internal inlet The missile's sharp nose funnels shock waves produced at hypersonic speeds into a rectangular opening on the craft's belly. The shock waves compress the air, eliminating mechanical parts that normally do this.
    Isolator This component adjusts airflow -- which can reach 2500 pounds per square foot -- to a stable pressure for the combustor. Slowing airflow increases drag on the vehicle, but allows for more complete combustion.
    Combustor Thrust is created when the compressed air mixes with a mist of JP-7 jet fuel and is ignited. Because hypersonic speeds generate sustained temperatures of up to 4500 degrees, the propellant also acts as a coolant -- and prevents the X-51's engine walls from melting.
    Airflow PM consulted NASA to estimate the fluid dynamics for external airflow around the nose, engine, stabilizers and tail of an X-51 traveling at Mach 5. The rear contour illustrates the engine exhaust plume shape.

    The USS Tennessee and other Ohio class subs carry 24 Trident II ballistic missiles in midship tubes. The 65-ton weapons are about 44 ft. long and 7 ft. wide. (Photograph by Yogi Inc / Corbis)

    Some officials in the Defense Department want to answer concerns about the Tridents with more radical solutions: exotic, high-tech devices capable of outracing any machine in their class to catch fleeting foes. If these weapons work as planned -- and that's a big if -- they could let the Pentagon launch lightning-quick attacks without risking a worldwide nuclear storm.

    On the coffee table in his cavernous office in the Pentagon's E Ring, Air Force chief scientist Mark J. Lewis has a model of such a machine, a 14-ft.-long missile called the X-51 WaveRider. With an angled nose, flaps in the middle and an inlet on the underbelly, the device looks like a cross between a spaceship and a futuristic cruise missile. It's designed to go nearly seven times faster than a Tomahawk -- a flight from the Arabian Sea to eastern Afghanistan would take 20 minutes -- and destroy targets with its own kinetic energy. Test flights are scheduled for 2008.

    The pressure, drag and high temperatures associated with hypersonic speeds (typically, greater than Mach 5, or 3600 mph) used to be considered too extreme for an aircraft to handle in a controlled way. Only ballistic missiles and spacecraft burning rocket fuel, shooting into space and roaring back to Earth, could go that fast.

    What the X-51 does is to turn some of the most brutal effects of hypersonic flight to its advantage. Take shock waves, for example. Bursting through the air at a hypersonic rate produces a train of waves, one after the other, which can drag down an aircraft. But the X-51 is a "wave rider," with a sharp nose shaped to make the waves break at precisely the right angle. All of the pressure is directed beneath the missile, lifting it up. The shock waves also compress the air to help fuel the X-51's combustion process.

    The craft is the same size and shape as a Joint Air-to- Surface Standoff Missile, so it can be attached to a B-52 or fighter jet. It runs on standard JP-7 jet fuel, not on rocket fuel, so it fits in neatly with the military's existing logistical chain. The X-51 is made from a fairly standard nickel alloy, not from exotic materials. And the advanced engine technology is very real. In 2004, NASA broke speed records while testing its X-43A, a precursor to the X-51 (see "Breakthrough Awards 2005," Nov. 2005). In a final test flight, the 12-ft.-long aircraft hit 7000 mph -- nearly Mach 10. In other words, the X-51 is not just some lab experiment; it's being designed from the start to deploy. "I've got tremendous confidence in it working," the Air Force's Mark J. Lewis says.

    That doesn't mean the X-51 will be in competition with a conventional Trident. It will have a range of only 600 nautical miles. And it first needs to be lifted into the air by a plane, then accelerated by a rocket-fueled booster before its hypersonic engine kicks in. But if the 2008 test flight is a success, the X-51 will be the first weapon other than a ballistic missile to fly at hypersonic speeds.

    The Trident II iteration of Prompt Global Strike foresaw a pushbutton war, fought from the White House. It assumed that the United States would have few allies or bases abroad from which to attack. Local commanders would be largely circumvented.

    But alternate scenarios being drawn up let U.S. forces act much as they do today, only faster. Hypersonic weapons could make that happen. Put an X-51-equipped plane in the air, and it could enable commanders to hit targets for hundreds of miles around in minutes. Tips could be acted on instantly; subs wouldn't have to be in a perfectposition in order to strike. Intelligence wouldn't have to race all the way to the Oval Office. Wrong information would produce local damage. And because the X-51 wouldn't be confused with a nuke -- or have to fly threateningly over nuclear-armed countries -- "you don't worry about starting World War III" when you score a direct hit, Lewis notes.

    Hypersonic technology will take longer to develop than a conventional Trident. But the X-51, and weapons like it, might make the most sense for the Global Strike arsenal. After all, they reduce potential fallout from the riskiest part of the program: the human element.