Image: Rocket launch
Chris Stacey  /  AP / Univ. of Queensland
A rocket takes off Saturday from Australia's Woomera Rocket Range to test a revolutionary supersonic combustion ramjet engine.
updated 3/26/2006 6:07:23 PM ET 2006-03-26T23:07:23

Researchers conducted a test flight in the Australian Outback on Saturday of a supersonic jet intended to travel at speeds of up to 5,000 mph (8,000 kilometers per hour).

The $1.42 million project was launched by researchers at the University of Queensland in the remote Outback community of Woomera, about 310 miles (500 kilometers) north of the South Australian state capital, Adelaide.

The so-called supersonic combustion ramjet — or "scramjet" — engine was developed by British company QinetiQ. It was attached to a rocket and launched to an altitude of 195 miles (314 kilometers) during its 10-minute flight, according to a statement from the University of Queensland.

Program leader Allan Paul said it was too early to tell if the rocket had reached its intended maximum speed of 5,000 mph, but was optimistic about the launch.

"It looks good. We got data all the way," he said.

Some observers say scramjet technologies could revolutionize air travel.

The United States has already carried out a flight test with a scramjet engine, while the European Union, Japan, China, Russia and India are in different stages of testing their technologies.

Paul said scramjet-powered passenger jets are still a long way off, but it might be possible to use a scramjet-powered plane within the next 10 years for limited purposes, such as delivering vital organs for urgent transplant operations.

Currently, the fastest that a conventional aircraft can fly is Mach 3.2, or 3.2 times the speed of sound, achieved by the U.S. Air Force's SR-71 Blackbird. That translates to an airspeed of 2,193 mph (3,529 kilometers per hour).

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