Hypersonics is an area of research referring to aircraft, missiles, and rockets that travel through the atmosphere at speeds much greater than the speed of sound, Mach 5 or higher (>3836.55 Mph). The field has seen considerable development for military applications with the US, China, and Russia. Hypersonic weapons and defense have become priorities of the United States Department of Defense's National Defense Strategy and Missile Defense Review.
While Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles reach hypersonic speeds as they re-enter the atmosphere, hypersonic weapon development aims to accelerate to Mach 5 or higher while remaining in the atmosphere and not taking advantage of the lack of friction and cooling properties of outer space. Unlike ICBMs that target fixed locations, such as cities, hypersonic research is attempting to make maneuverable projectiles that can strike moving targets.
Piloted hypersonic flight experiments date back to the 1960s and the US's X-15 rocket plane.
As well as military applications, there is a push towards commercial hypersonic flight that can dramatically reduce flight time for passengers.
Advanced hypersonic weapon systems provide advantages in terms of:
- speed to target,
- maneuverability, and
- Survivability to reach well-defended targets.
In June 2019, the USAF performed the maiden flight test of the air-launched rapid response weapon (ARRW), a hypersonic weapon. Conducted at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the test saw a B-52 Stratofortress aircraft carry a sensor-only version of the Lockheed Martin designed AGM-183A ARRW externally.
Defending against the threat of hypersonic weapons requires systems with greater levels of speed and accuracy. Multi-layered approaches are needed across all phases, including flight detection, tracking, and interception.
Traveling through the atmosphere at Mach 5 or over a mile a second creates a range of complex engineering and physics challenges.
Friction and air resistance at hypersonic speeds create extreme levels of heat, which require thermal protection systems and lightweight heat shields. Sensors and electronics have to be designed to withstand the extreme heat conditions produced in hypersonic travel. Hypersonic flight means developing advanced materials and composites to overcome the extreme environment.
Maneuverability at hypersonic speeds requires significant precision to accurately hit the intended target as well as operate in contested environments, overcoming a wide range of defenses.
Communication during hypersonic flight is a significant challenge; systems must maintain connectivity to operators and decision-makers through global communication and sensor systems.
Notable companies involved in hypersonics:
- Lockheed Martin
- Reaction Engines
- Indiana Innovation Institute (IN3)
- General Atomics
- Spirit Aerosystems
- Integration Innovation Inc.
- Verity Integrated Systems
- Martinez & Turek
- Penta Research
China successfully tested hypersonic weapon in August: report
October 18, 2021
The emerging world of hypersonic weapons technology