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NASA scientists celebrated the dawn of a new era in powered flight when, on the morning of 27 March, the X-43A jetlet go an 11-second burst of exhaust that propelled the plane to a speed greater than Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound. The test flight began with a B-52B bomber carrying aloft the X-43A attached to a Pegasus booster rocket. The X-43A's 11-second flight at 28 950 meters was the first successful demonstration of scramjet technology, which eventually will propel an aircraft into suborbital flight above the atmosphere at speeds approaching Mach 10 [see " Hypersonic Flight," IEEE Spectrum, January].

A scramjet--short for supersonic combustion ramjet--engine draws oxygen for combustion of its fuel supply directly from the air, and so, unlike rockets, it doesn't have to carry an onboard oxygen supply. This yields a tremendous weight savings. Because the air taken in from the atmosphere enters the engine's vent with tremendous force, there is no need for the rotating blades that compress the air in a conventional jet engine before combustion occurs.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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