The Kholod hypersonic vehicle outside the auction hall in Battersea Park, London

Hypersonic vehicle sells for �38 000 at auction

A hypersonic vehicle that was once the fastest machine to have flown within Earth’s atmosphere has been sold for £38,025 at an auction in London.

The Kholod was the first successful demonstration of a scramjet – a type of jet engine that relies on high vehicle speed to compress incoming air before combustion rather than the mechanical compressors used in standard jets – reaching a top speed of 4,310mph (6,936km/h), a world record at the time.

A $95m (£59m) joint venture between Nasa and the Russian Institute for New Propellants (CIAM), the vehicle set the stage for future scramjet projects that have gone on to beat the Kholod’s record such as Nasa’s X43, which reached 7,546mph in 2004, and Darpa’s HTV-2 Falcon, which reached 13,201mph in 2010.

Of the nine built between 1991 and 1998 five were destroyed during tests, while the other four complete vehicles returned to earth – one now resides in a private collection in the Middle East, two remain in Kazakhstan where the tests took place, and the final one was sold at a classic car auction organised by RM Auctions in Battersea Park yesterday evening.

“It was just a fun item really, something the seller had but didn’t really want,” said Peter Haynes of RM auctions. “There aren’t really any specialist auction houses that would sell something like this, as far as I know, so if you’re going to sell it you might as well sell it through a car auction house!”

The Kholod system – also known as the Hypersonic Flying Laboratory by Nasa’s researchers – consisted of a scramjet fuelled by cryogenically cooled liquid hydrogen and a suite of measurement instruments attached to the front of a Russian SA-5 surface-to-air missile, which was used to gain altitude and accelerate the vehicle to the speeds needed for scramjet operation.

The first Kholod lifted off from the Sary Shagan test range in Kazakhstan on 27 November 1991 – only a few weeks before the dissolution of the USSR – reaching an altitude of 22 miles (35km). From 1992 to 1998 six more test were conducted and the maximum flight velocity of more than Mach 6.4 was achieved, with the scramjet engine firing for a total of 77 seconds.

Between 1991 and 2001, the Kholod held the world record for outright atmospheric speed and it remains the fastest serially produced machine to have travelled within Earth’s atmosphere.

According to Haynes the seller was an Eastern European who had previously dealt with the auction house and happened to have access to the vehicle, while the buyer was also known to the auction house and normally buys classic cars.

“Unless you’ve got a museum or institution that would like to put something like this on display, the only other kind of buyer will literally be someone who fancies it and has either got a hall with a high enough ceiling to fit it in or plans to put it in his garden,” he added.

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