Tag Archives: evolution


Human Soul Evolution Continues Despite Chaos

Even if we are facing chaotic situations in many parts of the world including the recent bomb attacks in Mindanao, I believed that everything we are witnessing and experiencing are all part of the human soul evolution.

The human soul evolution is part of the Grand Plan of the Universe while we enter the new world of consciousness as described by the spiritual teachers in every religion.

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Etruscan Alphabet 500 BC

Eight Ancient Writings Still Can’t Be Deciphered

WRITING is one of the greatest inventions in human history. Perhaps the greatest, since it made history possible. Without writing, there could be no accumulation of knowledge, no historical record, no science – and of course no books, newspapers or internet.

The first true writing we know of is Sumerian cuneiform – consisting mainly of wedge-shaped impressions on clay tablets – which was used more than 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Soon afterwards writing appeared in Egypt, and much later in Europe, China and Central America. Civilisations have invented hundreds of different writing systems. Some, such as the one you are reading now, have remained in use, but most have fallen into disuse.

These dead scripts tantalise us. We can see that they are writing, but what do they say?

That is the great challenge of decipherment: to reach deep into the past and hear the voices of the dead. When the Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered in 1823, they extended the span of recorded history by around 2000 years and allowed us to read the words of Ramses the Great. The decipherment of the Mayan glyphs revealed that the New World had a sophisticated, literate civilisation at the time of the Roman empire.

So how do you decipher an unknown script? There are two minimum requirements. First, there has to be enough material to work with. Secondly, there must be some link to a known language. It helps enormously if there is a bilingual inscription or identifiable proper names – the Rosetta Stone (see image), for example, is written in both ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek, and also contains the name of the Ptolemy dynasty. If there is no clear link, an attempt must be made to relate the concealed language to a known one.

Many ancient scripts have been deciphered (see “The great decipherments” and The ancient scripts), but some significant ones have yet to be cracked. These fall into three broad categories: a known script writing an unknown language; an unknown script writing a known language; and an unknown script writing an unknown language. The first two categories are more likely to yield to decipherment; the third – which recalls Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “unknown unknowns” – is a much tougher proposition, though this doesn’t keep people from trying.

Most of the undeciphered scripts featured here have been partially deciphered, and well-known researchers have claimed that they have deciphered some much more fully. Further progress is possible for most of them, especially if new inscriptions are discovered, which fortunately happens fairly often.
1 Etruscan
Greek and not Greek

(known script, unknown language)

For those interested in language and writing, the Etruscans are a fascinating and frustrating bunch. Decipherment of the Etruscan language is like trying to learn English from reading nothing but gravestones. The Etruscan script was written in a form of the ancient Greek alphabet, but their language was unlike any other. So although Etruscan sentences can easily be “read”, nobody has much idea what they mean, apart from the names of people and places, and a smattering of vocabulary and standard phrases.

See Etruscan script on a gold plaque and an inkwell

The Etruscans were a prehistoric civilisation that arose in western Italy – what is now Tuscany and parts of Umbria – and was absorbed into the Roman empire by the first century BC. The Etruscans were highly literate, leaving thousands of texts. Many Etruscan artefacts are inscribed with the Greek alphabet, almost certainly borrowed from Greek colonists who settled in western Italy around 775 BC.

The everyday Etruscan alphabet is different, however. Although it strongly resembles the Greek one, it differs significantly too. The main difference is that Etruscan letters generally point in the opposite direction to Greek ones, because Etruscan was written from right to left.

Researchers persisted for over a century with efforts to relate Etruscan to other European languages – including Basque – by looking for similarities between readable Etruscan words and words in known languages. The attempt was hopeless. Etruscan is definitely not an Indo-European language and is now regarded as an isolate, like Basque.

Nevertheless, some Etruscan words can be understood from their contexts in inscriptions, such as Ruma (Rome), Clevsina (the city of Chiusi) and Fufluns (the god Dionysus). The problem has been to find the meanings of the many words that are not names. Perhaps 250 words have now been generally agreed, for example ci avil (three years), and this number is increasing as new inscriptions are discovered.
2 Meroitic hieroglyphs

voices of the black pharaohs

(known script, unknown language)

In the first millennium BC, the kingdom of Kush flourished around the two great bends of the river Nile between Abu Simbel and Khartoum, in what is now Sudan. The Kushite (or Meroitic, after the capital Meroe) civilisation was one of the most important early states of sub-Saharan Africa.

In 712 BC, Kushite kings conquered Egypt and were accepted as its 25th dynasty. The “black pharaohs” ruled for nearly 70 years until war with the Assyrians forced the Kushites back to their homeland in 656 BC.

The Meroitic hieroglyphs (see image) date from after this defeat: the Kushite pharaohs used Egyptian hieroglyphs, but from the 3rd century BC these increasingly appeared alongside a new, indigenous script. As in Egypt (for example, on the Rosetta Stone), there are two forms of this script: hieroglyphic, which was used on monuments and had essentially pictographic signs, and everyday cursive, or joined-up, writing.

There are 23 symbols in each form of Meroitic. In that respect it resembles a modern alphabet – unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics, which use hundreds of symbols. Around 1911, Francis Llewellyn Griffith, an Egyptologist at the University of Oxford, deciphered the phonetic values of both Meroitic scripts from inscriptions that record a text in Meroitic and Egyptian scripts.

Meroitic words can therefore be “read”, like Etruscan words. Frustratingly, however, they cannot be understood, because the Meroitic language is unknown. Proper names can be deciphered, and a few dozen other words, such as tenke (west) and ato (water), can be guessed from their contexts, but that is all.

Griffith always believed that Meroitic would eventually be deciphered. But despite decades of comparisons between Meroitic words and the ancient and modern African languages of the region, no convincing resemblance has yet been detected.
3 The New World

Olmec, Zapotec and Isthmian

(Olmec: unknown script, unknown language
Zapotec: unknown script, possibly known language
Isthmian: unknown script, possibly known language)

We know that the classical Mayan civilisation (around AD 250 to the 8th century) was literate, but the origins of writing in Central America – and the New World as a whole – are murky. The region has a number of undeciphered ancient scripts. Three have attracted particular interest: Olmec, Zapotec and Isthmian.

The earliest American script may come from the Olmecs, the region’s most ancient civilisation, which flourished along the Gulf of Mexico coast of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from around 1500 to 400 BC. The Olmecs were thought to be illiterate until the late 1990s, when an inscribed stone block was discovered by road builders. Dated to 900 BC, the inscription is made from 62 symbols, some of which are repeated. It is very probably writing, but without the discovery of further inscriptions there is no certainty, and no hope of decipherment.

The Zapotec civilisation of Oaxaca undoubtedly had writing. Some 1200 inscribed objects have been found, ranging from painted walls to pots, bones and shells. The date of the script appears to lie somewhere between 600 and 400 BC.

Scholars have been able to work out the Zapotec calendar and show it to be a precursor of the Mayan one. But even though Zapotec languages are still spoken in the area, it has proved more difficult to reconstruct the language of the script, in part because of the bewildering complexity of the modern Zapotecan language group.

The latest and most controversial of the three scripts is Isthmian (see image). Even its name is not agreed: some call it “epi-Olmec”. In 1902, an unusual statuette made of jade was ploughed up in a field in the Olmec area. It represents a man dressed as a duck, and was inscribed with about 70 unknown symbols. Deposited in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the Tuxtla statuette was the only example of the script until 1986, when fishermen stumbled on a second example in a river: a 4-tonne slab of polished basalt with a much longer inscription.

The script dates to the 2nd century AD. The most likely language is an archaic version of Zoquean, a current language of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Two linguists, John Justeson of the State University of New York in Albany and Terrence Kaufman of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have proposed a decipherment based on their reconstruction of “pre-proto-Zoquean”. Unless more inscriptions turn up, this must remain a well-informed conjecture.
4 Linear A
a Minoan mystery

(partially known script, unknown language)

In 1900, British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered not one but two unknown scripts, both scratched on clay tablets, while digging at the “Palace of Minos” at Knossos in Crete – the centre of the Bronze-Age Minoan civilisation.

One of these, Linear B, was famously deciphered in 1952, making it Europe’s earliest readable writing (see “The great decipherments”). The other, Linear A, remains undeciphered.

Linear B dates from around 1450 BC. It is an archaic form of written Greek used by Greek-speakers who conquered parts of Crete around that time. Linear A is older, from the 18th century BC. It is the script of the Minoan civilisation, and the only solid link we have to the lost Minoan language.

Unfortunately for decipherers, we have much less Linear A than Linear B – around 1500 texts, mostly from Crete but also from other Aegean islands, mainland Greece, Turkey and Israel. The majority of the inscriptions are short or damaged.

The symbols of Linear A (see image) strongly resemble those of Linear B, but this does not mean that a Linear A symbol necessarily has the same sound as a similar Linear B symbol, because Minoan and Greek were different. You can read Linear A using Linear B sounds – but because no one knows Minoan, we cannot be sure if the words are correct. What can be deduced from such substitutions, however, is that the language of Linear A is not Greek.
We can read Linear A out loud – but since nobody knows Minoan, we cannot be sure if the words are correct
5 Rongo-rongo

the chant of Easter Island

(unknown script, probably known language)

Easter Island is a place of intrigue and mystery, and its indigenous script rongo-rongo is no exception.

Rongo-rongo (see image) means “chants” in Rapanui, the language of Easter Island. Although the language of rongo-rongo is probably similar to Rapanui, the script is complex and baffling. There are only 25 inscriptions, some quite long, and all written on driftwood.

Its age is puzzling. Local legend has it that the writing was brought to the island by boat when Easter Island was settled from Polynesia; the date is unknown, but could have been as early as AD 300. However, the first Europeans to land, a Dutch fleet in 1722, saw no evidence of rongo-rongo. When two Spanish ships arrived in 1770 and made a “treaty” claiming Easter Island for Spain, the islanders “signed” the treaty – but their signatures do not resemble rongo-rongo.
Local legend has it that the script was brought by boat when the island was settled from Polynesia

Captain James Cook, landing in 1774, saw no writing. The first confirmed sighting of rongo-rongo was by a French missionary in 1864, who noted that knowledge of the signs was dying out. Despite efforts by the bishop of Tahiti in the 1870s, no islanders could be found to read the writing. Since then scholars have been at odds on how to interpret it.

Not surprisingly, rongo-rongo has been a powerful kook attractor. One popular, but absurd, idea relates rongo-rongo to the Indus script simply because some of the signs are alike.

One thing is beyond dispute: the direction of reading is unusual, though not unique. To read a rongo-rongo tablet, you start at the bottom left-hand corner and read along the line. Then you turn the tablet by 180 degrees and begin reading the next line up, again from left to right. At the end of that line, you repeat the 180-degree turn, and so on. This is known as reverse boustrophedon (“boustrophedon” is ancient Greek for “as the ox turns” when ploughing).
6 Indus script
sign of the unicorn

(unknown script, possibly known language)

The remains of the Indus valley civilisation cover an area of Pakistan and north-west India about a quarter the size of Europe. At its peak, between 2500 and 1900 BC, its major cities were comparable with those of contemporary Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The exquisitely carved script of this civilisation is known from about 5000 inscriptions, many of them on stones found scattered in the houses and streets of its ruined cities. A frequent motif on the seals is a one-horned quadruped like a unicorn (a creature, legend has it, from India) (see image). The texts are tantalisingly brief. The average length is just five signs, the longest only 20. A few researchers have questioned if they really are writing, but the majority reckon they are.
The texts are tantalisingly brief, with an average length of just five signs

The language of the Indus civilisation may have died out altogether, though some speculate that it relates to the Dravidian languages now spoken only in southern India and in Baluchistan, not far from the Indus valley, where the Dravidian language is known as Brahui. If the Dravidian hypothesis is correct, it might be possible to match words from the old form of Tamil, a Dravidian language spoken in Tamil Nadu, with the Indus signs.

For example, a very common sign is the fish (see below). The Old Tamil word for fish is min. But min has another meaning too – “star” or “planet”. Perhaps the fish sign stands for an astral word – a bit like using a pictogram of the sun in a puzzle to mean “son”.

Attractive as such speculation is, we are still a long way from deciphering the Indus script. More than 100 decipherments of the script have been published since its discovery in the 1920s, some by respected archaeologists, but they differ widely, often wildly.
7 Proto-Elamite

oldest undeciphered writing

(partially known script, unknown language)

Proto-Elamite is the world’s oldest undeciphered script – assuming that it really is a fully developed writing system, which is by no means certain. It was used for perhaps 150 years from around 3050 BC in Elam, the biblical name for an area that corresponds roughly to today’s oilfields of western Iran. It is almost as old as the oldest writing of all, the earliest cuneiform from Mesopotamia. Little is known about the people who wrote the script.

Proto-Elamite preceded a partially deciphered script, Linear Elamite, used in the same area 750 years later. Linear Elamite in turn preceded a third script, a cuneiform that the Elamites used for many centuries starting in the 13th century BC. Elamite cuneiform was deciphered in the 19th century.

So there are three Elamite scripts, each separated by about 800 years and with no texts to fill the gaps: no Chaucer or Shakespeare to link Anglo-Saxon with modern English, as it were.

The relationship between Proto-Elamite and Linear Elamite is controversial. The discoverer of Proto-Elamite in the early 20th century was convinced that the two scripts wrote the same language. Later scholars agreed. But since the 1980s, specialists have become increasingly persuaded that there is no evidence for a shared language and culture. They have worked out Proto-Elamite arithmetic in impressive detail, but the language of the inscriptions is still completely unknown.
8 Phaistos disc

oldest printing, or hoax?

(unknown script, unknown language)

The notoriously solitary Phaistos disc from Crete appears to be the world’s oldest “printed” document. The disc, about 15 centimetres in diameter, occupies pride of place at the Heraklion Museum in Crete. Some say it should not be regarded as an undeciphered script because it is in fact a hoax – the Piltdown Man of ancient writing.

However, most authorities have treated it as genuine since its discovery by Italian archaeologists in 1908 at ancient Phaistos, in an archaeological context suggesting a date of about 1700 BC. Few scholars, however, have been intrepid enough to propose a decipherment.

The disc (see image) is made of baked clay and has inscriptions on both sides consisting of a spiral of symbols impressed into the wet clay with a set of stamps. The 241 or 242 symbols (one is obliterated) were made by 45 different stamps. This is about all that can be stated without fear of overstepping the evidence.

But why should anyone have bothered to produce a set of 45 stamps, rather than “writing” the signs afresh? If it was to mass-produce documents, why have no others been found? And why are the symbols unlike any of the signs of the other Cretan scripts?

One idea is that the disc was imported, possibly from Anatolia (one symbol resembles an Anatolian rock tomb). If so, the disc’s language may be some unknowable non-Cretan tongue. Unless more of the script is found, however, the Phaistos disc must remain a perplexing riddle.

Source: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20227106.000-decoding-antiquity-eight-scripts-that-still-cant-be-read.html?full=true


Can We Survive The Coming Century?

The new scientist.com features an in-depth study and analysis on how Earth would be look like in the next century until 2099. It is said that most humans could not survive if the whole planet will be warmer by 4 degrees Celsius. Read the article below.

ALLIGATORS basking off the English coast; a vast Brazilian desert; the mythical lost cities of Saigon, New Orleans, Venice and Mumbai; and 90 per cent of humanity vanished. Welcome to the world warmed by 4 °C.
Clearly this is a vision of the future that no one wants, but it might happen. Fearing that the best efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions may fail, or that planetary climate feedback mechanisms will accelerate warming, some scientists and economists are considering not only what this world of the future might be like, but how it could sustain a growing human population. They argue that surviving in the kinds of numbers that exist today, or even more, will be possible, but only if we use our uniquely human ingenuity to cooperate as a species to radically reorganise our world.
The good news is that the survival of humankind itself is not at stake: the species could continue if only a couple of hundred individuals remained. But maintaining the current global population of nearly 7 billion, or more, is going to require serious planning.
Four degrees may not sound like much – after all, it is less than a typical temperature change between night and day. It might sound quite pleasant, like moving to Florida from Boston, say, or retiring from the UK to southern Spain. An average warming of the entire globe by 4 °C is a very different matter, however, and would render the planet unrecognisable from anything humans have ever experienced. Indeed, human activity has and will have such a great impact that some have proposed describing the time from the 18th century onward as a new geological era, marked by human activity. “It can be considered the Anthropocene,” says Nobel prizewinning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.
A 4 °C rise could easily occur. The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose conclusions are generally accepted as conservative, predicted a rise of anywhere between 2 °C and 6.4 °C this century. And in August 2008, Bob Watson, former chair of the IPCC, warned that the world should work on mitigation and adaptation strategies to “prepare for 4 °C of warming”.
A key factor in how well we deal with a warmer world is how much time we have to adapt. When, and if, we get this hot depends not only on how much greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere and how quickly, but how sensitive the world’s climate is to these gases. It also depends whether “tipping points” are reached, in which climate feedback mechanisms rapidly speed warming. According to models, we could cook the planet by 4 °C by 2100. Some scientists fear that we may get there as soon as 2050.
If this happens, the ramifications for life on Earth are so terrifying that many scientists contacted for this article preferred not to contemplate them, saying only that we should concentrate on reducing emissions to a level where such a rise is known only in nightmares.
“Climatologists tend to fall into two camps: there are the cautious ones who say we need to cut emissions and won’t even think about high global temperatures; and there are the ones who tell us to run for the hills because we’re all doomed,” says Peter Cox, who studies the dynamics of climate systems at the University of Exeter, UK. “I prefer a middle ground. We have to accept that changes are inevitable and start to adapt now.”
Bearing in mind that a generation alive today might experience the scary side of these climate predictions, let us head bravely into this hotter world and consider whether and how we could survive it with most of our population intact. What might this future hold?
The last time the world experienced temperature rises of this magnitude was 55 million years ago, after the so-called Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event. Then, the culprits were clathrates – large areas of frozen, chemically caged methane – which were released from the deep ocean in explosive belches that filled the atmosphere with around 5 gigatonnes of carbon. The already warm planet rocketed by 5 or 6 °C, tropical forests sprang up in ice-free polar regions, and the oceans turned so acidic from dissolved carbon dioxide that there was a vast die-off of sea life. Sea levels rose to 100 metres higher than today’s and desert stretched from southern Africa into Europe.
While the exact changes would depend on how quickly the temperature rose and how much polar ice melted, we can expect similar scenarios to unfold this time around. The first problem would be that many of the places where people live and grow food would no longer be suitable for either. Rising sea levels – from thermal expansion of the oceans, melting glaciers and storm surges – would drown today’s coastal regions in up to 2 metres of water initially, and possibly much more if the Greenland ice sheet and parts of Antarctica were to melt.
“It’s hard to see west Antarctica’s ice sheets surviving the century, meaning a sea-level rise of at least 1 or 2 metres,” says climatologist James Hansen, who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. “CO2 concentrations of 550 parts per million [compared with about 385 ppm now] would be disastrous,” he adds, “certainly leading to an ice-free planet, with sea level about 80 metres higher… and the trip getting there would be horrendous.”

The First Hypersonic Craft Developed

Welcome to the Hypersonic Age!

Man has developed a hypersonic jet known as “scramjet” – supersonic combustion ramjet that could reach a maximum speed of Mach 15 – nearly 10, 000 miles per hour. This could mean two-hour flights from New York to Sydney.

It could also mean missiles capable of hitting targets on another continent at a moment’s notice, and when you put it that way, it’s not surprising that militaries around the world—the U.S., Australia, China and perhaps others—are trying to build them.

After decades on the drawing board, it seems scramjet technology is finally about to arrive.

Ordinary jets have a major limitation: They can’t go faster than Mach 3 without their turbine blades melting. Rocket ships can reach Mach 25, but they have to carry tremendous amounts of liquid oxygen to burn their fuel. The space shuttle, for example, weighs only 165,000 pounds empty, but it must carry 226,000 pounds of liquid hydrogen and 1.4 million pounds of liquid oxygen to reach orbit. An air-breathing jet engine with no moving, meltable parts, such as a scramjet, can solve these problems.

A scramjet is an advanced form of a “ramjet,” an engine that takes the air rushing into the engine and “rams” it into the combustion chamber, creating intense pressures that can sustain combustion at the furious rate that Mach-3-plus speeds demand.

But ramjets have limits too. The air entering the engine has to be slowed to subsonic speeds for it to run efficiently. And that air is so hot that no matter what measures are taken to cool it, a ramjet-powered craft must stay under Mach 5 to keep from disintegrating.

But a scramjet—a “supersonic combustion ramjet”—changes things. A scramjet does away with the diffuser that a ramjet uses to slow down incoming air, allowing the air to move through the engine at supersonic speeds so it can fly above Mach 5.

The tradeoff: A scramjet engine in flight is a delicate system. Achieving balanced combustion at those speeds is an engineering challenge often compared to keeping a match lit in a hurricane.

More about this topic: http://www.popsci.com/popsci/aviationspace/a3bfe2e6fb5c6110vgnvcm1000004eecbccdrcrd.html

The Complete article about Scramjet

Nick Kaloterakis
Silver Bullet: If it works, the HTV-3X will be the first reusable scramjet-powered plane. It will be able to take off from a runway, fly at speeds of up to Mach 6, land safely, and then do it again.

The Hypersonic Age is Near
Recent breakthroughs in scramjet engines could mean two-hour flights from New York to Tokyo. They could also mean missiles capable of striking any continent in a moment’s notice. No wonder the race to develop them is as fierce as ever.

Last March, engineers from Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR) gathered in the control room of a high-temperature tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. After a countdown, a jet of blue flame fueled by methane gas roared down the 12-foot length of the tunnel. A low rumble crept into the control room. It sounded like a rocket firing, which actually wasn’t far from the truth.

“Okay to inject,” a test director announced when the flame had reached full force. An angular pedestal covered in bolted copper plates rose from the floor of the chamber, placing an experimental scramjet engine called the X-1 into the inferno. “AOA modulating,” called the test director as the engine tilted slightly. “Model on centerline.” Then, “We are in ignition.” And with that, an exhaust flame even hotter than the 2,000°F-plus methane jet around it began to dance behind the activated engine, growing brighter as it ramped up to full thrust. After one minute, the engine shut down and descended through the floor.

The test was part of the X-51A Flight Test Program, a research project funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon’s research arm. The X-51A project is, in turn, one piece of a global effort—part collaboration, part race—to build jet-powered aircraft that fly as fast as rocket ships. And the technology that will make this breakthrough possible is the scramjet, an engine that inhales air at tremendous speeds, squeezes the air until it’s thousands of degrees hot, and then mixes that air with fuel to generate massive thrust at higher speeds than any other jet-engine design.

The X-1 scramjet engine, which will eventually power the X-51A aircraft, is the most advanced scramjet engine ever built. The blowtorch blasting through the chamber was meant to simulate the extreme heat generated by flying faster than Mach 6. In all, the team at Langley would repeat this test 44 times. “We tested it at Mach 4.6, 5.0 and 6.5,” says Curtis Berger, the X-51A program manager at PWR. “The amount of time that this thing was actually running and creating thrust was just about 17.8 minutes.” He pauses to let that sink in. “Over 17 minutes of time on this engine. That’s a lot of time for a scramjet engine.”

To put things in context, the world’s fastest jet, the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, set a speed record of Mach 3.3 in 1990 when it flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in just over an hour. That’s about the limit for jet engines; the fastest fighter planes barely crack Mach 1.6. Scramjets, on the other hand, can theoretically fly as fast as Mach 15—nearly 10,000 mph.

This could mean two-hour flights from New York to Sydney. It could also mean missiles capable of hitting targets on another continent at a moment’s notice, and when you put it that way, it’s not surprising that militaries around the world—the U.S., Australia, China and perhaps others—are trying to build them. After decades on the drawing board, it seems scramjet technology is finally about to arrive.

A Match in a Hurricane
Ordinary jets have a major limitation: They can’t go faster than Mach 3 without their turbine blades melting. Rocket ships can reach Mach 25, but they have to carry tremendous amounts of liquid oxygen to burn their fuel. The space shuttle, for example, weighs only 165,000 pounds empty, but it must carry 226,000 pounds of liquid hydrogen and 1.4 million pounds of liquid oxygen to reach orbit.

An air-breathing jet engine with no moving, meltable parts, such as a scramjet, can solve these problems. A scramjet is an advanced form of a “ramjet,” an engine that takes the air rushing into the engine and “rams” it into the combustion chamber, creating intense pressures that can sustain combustion at the furious rate that Mach-3-plus speeds demand. But ramjets have limits too. The air entering the engine has to be slowed to subsonic speeds for it to run efficiently. And that air is so hot that no matter what measures are taken to cool it, a ramjet-powered craft must stay under Mach 5 to keep from disintegrating.

But a scramjet—a “supersonic combustion ramjet”—changes things. A scramjet does away with the diffuser that a ramjet uses to slow down incoming air, allowing the air to move through the engine at supersonic speeds so it can fly above Mach 5. The tradeoff: A scramjet engine in flight is a delicate system. Achieving balanced combustion at those speeds is an engineering challenge often compared to keeping a match lit in a hurricane.

So far, the most public scramjet project has been the National Aerospace Plane, or NASP. Unfortunately, it was a spectacular failure. Announcing the project in his 1986 State of the Union address, President Reagan called it “a new Orient Express” that would be able to reach Tokyo from Dulles Airport in two hours; the goal was to have it running by the late 1990s. NASP was meant to be all things to all customers—America’s next space shuttle as well as the Air Force’s next bomber and the next big thing in passenger travel. But by 1994, it appeared that research had stalled, and President Clinton canceled NASP. That might have been a good thing. “We didn’t stop our research,” says Charlie Brink, a scramjet program manager at the Propulsion Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory. “We reevaluated it and said: Now that we’re not trying to make a Mach-0-to-25 vehicle take off from a runway, let’s take the technical problem and break it down into more manageable chunks.”

“What you’re seeing now is a transition of the technology out of the laboratories into the flight-test domain,” says David Van Wie, a scramjet research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Armed with a new understanding of hypersonic aerodynamics and air-breathing propulsion, Van Wie says, “it’s really to the point that people who work in the field feel they’re ready to take the steps into flight test, experimentation and demonstration.”

Escape from the Lab
In 2002, Australian researchers with the HyShot program at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Hypersonics made history by conducting the world’s first scramjet “flight.” They strapped a small scramjet engine into the nose cone of a solid-fuel rocket and launched it to the edge of space. Then, some 200 miles up, the rocket dropped off, the scramjet shed its protective fairing and, as planned, nosed over and plummeted back toward Earth at thousands of miles an hour. At an altitude of 20 miles, the scramjet engine kicked in, firing for five seconds and reaching Mach 7.6, or more than 5,000 mph, before slamming into the ground. It wasn’t graceful, but it was a historic achievement and a scientific success—a low-cost way to gather data from a scramjet while subjecting it to brutal heat and incredible velocity outside of a wind tunnel.

Nick Kaloterakis
How to go really, really fast isn’t the only problem facing the designers of hypersonic vehicles. Thermal management—that is, making sure your aircraft doesn’t melt while doing Mach 10 —is a huge challenge, and one that will drive the design of any scramjet-powered craft. Here are a few of the ways engineers hope to solve that and other problems.

Since then, a loose federation of researchers from NASA, the Air Force, the Navy, Darpa and the University of Queensland, working on a variety of projects, has conducted a number of tests outside the lab. So far, no engine has pulled off more than a few seconds of sustained flight. But there have been major breakthroughs along the way. In 2004, NASA’s unmanned X-43A—a disposable, rocket-boosted craft that was launched from a moving airplane—reached Mach 9.6, setting the world speed record for a jet-powered aircraft. It took only 10 seconds of scramjet power to get it up to that speed. And HyCause, the program that succeeded HyShot, conducted tests in Australia last summer that reached Mach 10, but only for three seconds.

A scramjet that can stay lit for several minutes could power a hypersonic long-range missile. That, at least, is the idea behind a joint Darpa and Navy project called Hypersonics Flight Demonstration, or HyFly. Last fall, the program carried out the latest in a series of test flights in which a scramjet was dropped from an F-15 fighter jet off Point Mugu in California and boosted to operating speed by rocket. The goal was to reach Mach 6 and keep the scramjet going for 100 seconds or more. (It didn’t make it that time, but the tests will continue, program officials say.)

A HyCause rocket with a scramjet
engine on its nose takes off.

Chris Stacey/University of Queensland

A payload-carrying, piloted craft that can take off and land under its own power will need an engine that can produce power for a lot longer than 100 seconds, though. Breaking that barrier is the goal of the X-51A Flight Test Program, whose engineers spent much of last year torching its X-1 engine design in Langley’s high-temperature test tunnel. So far, the X-1 has had to take more punishment than any scramjet engine ever built. It’s made of a steel-nickel alloy that stays strong up to 2,100°F, and its leading edges are coated in a heat-resistant carbon mesh. Even these materials aren’t enough, though, so the X-1′s engineers borrowed a technique from rocket designers, who typically circulate fuel—in this case, the same petroleum-based jet fuel that powered the SR-71—along channels within the engine’s walls before it enters the combustor. This both cools the 3,000°F-plus combustor and preconditions the fuel, turning it into a hot gas that packs 10 percent more energy than it does in liquid form.

The X-51A’s target is five minutes of uninterrupted scramjet-powered flight. If it works, longer-burning scramjets should quickly follow. “The five minutes of flight we’re talking about is not limited by the propulsion system,” Berger says. “That’s just how much gas we have in the tank.” On a modified vehicle with a bigger gas tank, that five minutes could easily turn into an hour or longer. And that, says Mike McKeon, PWR’s manager of Hypersonic and Advanced Programs, is key. “This engine has demonstrated that the propulsion technology is ready for application,” he says of the X-1. “It’s no longer in the research-technology mode.” Next-generation engines based on the X-1 are already being built at PWR’s plant in Florida.

With any luck, sometime in 2009, the X51-A will shatter all previous records for sustained scramjet ignition. The PWR team imagines that a B-52 bomber will take off from Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert, head toward the coast and, at 45,000 feet, drop the X-51A from the plane. A solid-fuel rocket attached to the X-51A will fire, blasting it up to 60,000 feet and past Mach 4.5, and then drop off to let the scramjet ignite. For five minutes, the scramjet will accelerate the X-51A to a peak speed past Mach 6 and an altitude above 80,000 feet. Then it will fly into the Pacific, its data safely telemetered to engineers on the ground. The test will also mark the moment when scramjets move from flash-in-the-pan science experiments to useful tools. “This is an airplane,” Berger emphasizes, “not just something where you light a scramjet and fire it and see where it goes. This is really beyond something you might do for a weapon application. The whole idea is to prove the practicality of a free-flying, scalable, scramjet-powered vehicle.”

The Real Race Begins
The first true reusable, free-flying scramjet could be Darpa’s HTV-3X. Also known as Blackswift, the unmanned vehicle looks like an alien spaceship, with black curves, a rapier-like prow and oval exhaust ports. It’s still only in the planning stages as part of Darpa’s Falcon program, but it could represent the biggest breakthrough in aeronautics since the jet engine itself. It will demonstrate for the first time all the technologies needed for a practical scramjet-powered aircraft by taking off and landing under its own power and running on scramjets as long as needed to complete its mission.

The HTV-3x could make its inaugural flight as early as 2012. Here’s how a perfect mission would go: The unmanned craft taxis out of a hangar at Edwards Air Force Base. Its twin conventional turbine engines throttle up before it accelerates down the runway and climbs into the desert sky, followed closely by a chase plane. The chase plane keeps pace until shortly after the unmanned craft hits the speed of sound. At Mach 2, doors just within the jets’ inlets close off the turbines and open the airflow to the scramjet engines, which fire out of the same nozzles used by the turbine jets. On the ground, engineers watch their bird hit Mach 6, twice as fast as any turbine- jet-powered craft ever built. The test completed, the craft slows to subsonic speed, switches to turbine jets, and lands back at Edwards, mission accomplished.

Darpa officials are keeping quiet about Blackswift for now. Spokesperson Jan Walker says no project engineers could give interviews for this article because “it’s a very busy time for the program.” But Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is already at work on the engine that HTV-3X will use—a combined-cycle turbine-scramjet engine—and although Lockheed Martin won’t confirm it, the company’s famously secretive Skunk Works division is widely believed to be building the vehicle itself.

Meanwhile, there’s competition. Last July, engineers from China showed up at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Joint Propulsion Conference in Cincinnati and revealed a growing scramjet research program of their own, including a new hypersonic wind tunnel in Beijing and work on rocket-powered combined-cycle scramjets. None of the American scramjet experts we talked to would discuss their reactions to the Chinese revelations. But Craig Covault, an editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology who reported on the conference, believes one of the main reasons the Chinese attended was to glean all available intel on Western scramjet research. “I would bet that they have a serious research program under way that has a lot more going on than just the few papers that they issued at this forum,” Covault says. “The reason that they issued them was just kind of a message to the rest of the world that they are engaged in these high-tech things. It also allowed them to get the 500 or more other papers in propulsion technology of all kinds delivered at the conference.”

Scramjet projects have failed before, and some of the initiatives under way today could fail too. But many researchers say that this time around, scramjets are for real. “Advanced propulsion technology has a development timescale that appears to be on the order of decades,” says Johns Hopkins’s Van Wie. “The first scientific paper on rockets was published in 1903, and rockets became practical during World War II, 40-some years later.” He points to a seminal conference in 1960 during which researchers first hashed out the major challenges to building practical scramjets. “So if you look at that—1960 to now, 47 years or so—it’s kind of on the same timescale to see this roll out.” In other words, that two-hour flight to Tokyo just might be leaving sooner than you think.

See more pictures of the test program in action, launch the gallery here.