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For use with Chapter13
States of Matter

The Sky Is No Longer the Limit
Posted April 26, 1999

To most people, there is a big difference between an airplane and a space ship. As we move farther into the future, this difference becomes less and less. Over the past several years, NASA and other U.S. government research bodies have been designing next-generation aircrafts that bridge the gap between the airlines and the space program.

The first practical step into this realm came about 20 years ago when NASA developed the space shuttle. The shuttle was designed to be launched into space and later returned to Earth, landing like an airplane. This allowed NASA engineers to reuse the craft; in the past, most of the rockets that were sent into space were left to burn up in the atmosphere.

NASA has improved on the space shuttle design with two new crafts. The X-33 is a prototype for a next-generation space shuttle called the VentureStar. A true space plane, the X-33 can be launched with a minimal ground crew and later landed by gliding though the air and touching down on a runway. It has been estimated that this new technology could reduce costs of putting equipment into space to one-tenth of the original cost.

The other next-generation space shuttle is the X-38. This craft has no motor and is very cost-effective because it is built with parts that do not have to be custom made. The X-38 was originally designed as a space station lifeboat--a ship that could quickly return space station astronauts to Earth in the case of an emergency. After the X-38 is deployed from the space station, it will coast through the upper atmosphere like a glider. Then, it releases a parachute for a peaceful drift back home.

The Department of Energy has also been working hard on an experimental craft. Dubbed "HyperSoar," this plane could be the fastest ever built - topping off the speedometer at 6,700 miles per hour, or 10 times the speed of sound. At these speeds, the plane could travel half-way around the world in less than two hours. (Such a journey today would take approximately 10 hours.)

HyperSoar achieves these speeds by flying at an altitude of 130,000 feet. This put it just above Earth's atmosphere. After about 10 minutes, gravity pulls the craft back towards the atmosphere, at which time the craft fires its engines. By repeating this process, the plane could be made to skip across the atmosphere, much like a flat stone will skip across water.

One drawback to HyperSoar is that the skipping would give the passengers a very rough ride. It would be like continuously going up and down a steep roller coaster hill every five to ten minutes. However, some think it would be worth it to be able to travel from New York to Tokyo in a couple hours.

Use the Internet to research the development of the space shuttle. What are some characteristics of the space shuttle that make it a more effective tool than typical rockets?



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