The United States Air Force (USAF) has announced that construction has commenced on a new hypersonic vehicle.
This vehicle will be able to travel through the atmosphere at speeds of over Mach 5, while being able to carry sensor payloads and warheads.
Hypersonic vehicles make use of rocket boosters and supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) motors to achieve speeds much greater than those of traditional air-breathing craft.
The new craft announced by the USAF is likely based heavily off DARPA’s X-51 scramjet demonstrator project. Concluding in 2013, this $300 million project showed that hypersonic craft were technically possible.
DARPA achieved this by carrying the X-51 to an attitude of 15 km using a B-52 bomber, before dropping the craft which then activated a rocket booster. This booster then accelerated the craft to supersonic speeds, where its scramjet motor takes over its propulsion, accelerating it yet further.
“X-51 was really a proof of concept test. It showed that you could get a scram jet engine, launch it off an aircraft and it could go hypersonic. It was able to go more than Mach 5 until it ran out of fuel. It was a very successful test of an airborne hypersonic weapons system,” explained Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley according to Military.com.
The USAF acknowledges that their new craft will be more complicated than the X-51, and will need to feature many new innovations. These include new materials able to handle hypersonic speeds, as well as new avionics and guidance systems.
If all goes to plan, the new vehicle will be ready by 2023, however due to the complicated nature of this technology, delays to this timeframe are be likely.
Hypersonic arms race
The United States is by no means the only country working on hypersonic vehicles and weapons systems.
Last year satellites detected a hypersonic vehicle tested in China moving at between Mach 5 and 10, the first of a series of tests of a so-called ‘hypersonic glide vehicle’.
These vehicles function in a similar way to traditional ballistic missiles, however, upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, glide at hypersonic speeds towards a target, enabling them to avoid missile defence systems.
Outside of China there is also documentation to suggest that Russia is working on a similar system.