By Jonathan Davis
As Russia prepares to deploy its first operational hypersonic missile system, Avantgard, the United States continues to play catch-up in order to level the field.
As such, the U.S. Air Force has begun testing a new hypersonic boost rocket it hopes will eventually lead to a system that is comparable or superior to the Avantgard.
As reported by Popular Mechanics:
The Air Force Research Laboratory’s X-60A hypersonic research rocket completed a new round of realistic ground testing. The rocket’s engine was tested in both “cold flow” and “hot fire” testing, and incorporated realistic operational procedures that a real rocket might face. The goal of the program is to create an affordable, reliable hypersonic propulsion system, one that can reach Mach 7.
In a statement, the Air Force said that the X-60A’s propulsion system recently “achieved a key developmental milestone with the completion of integrated vehicle propulsion system verification ground testing.”
Here’s a mock-up demo video of the test:
The Air Force says that the X-60A is expendable and meant to carry hypersonic payloads. The rocket is carried by a Gulfstream III business jet to 35,000 feet, then is released, which triggers the ignition of the booster.
It then climbs to between 70,000 and 130,000 feet, when it begins cruising unpowered at between Mach 6-8. Potential payloads include a full-scale mockup of a potentially scram-jet-powered mockup.
Popular Mechanics adds:
The X-60A is meant to speed up hypersonic weapon research. It would allow scientists and engineers to test a hypersonic vehicle body while continuing separate research on the propulsion system. Vehicles traveling at hypersonic speeds, starting at Mach 5 and up, are subjected to incredible aerodynamic stresses, a product of forcing the vehicle through air at speeds in excess of 3,800 miles an hour. That’s not all: friction between the skin of the object and the surrounding air can push temperatures surface temperatures as high as 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
All of that makes hypersonic vehicle research extremely difficult. The X-60A would allow hypersonic research to proceed in tandem, separating the hypersonic vehicle design from the propulsion system design. Scientists could perfect the vehicle design with the X-60A and then add the propulsion system, then finally test the complete weapon system.
The X-60A is meant to pursue two hypersonic weapon propulsion technologies: boost glide, which uses a rocket booster to push a hypersonic weapon to high speed, and scramjets, air-breathing engines that gulp air at supersonic speeds. The question is whether or not the X-60A itself could someday be part of a hypersonic weapon system.
China is also working on a hypersonic missile design, and is reportedly ahead of the U.S. in development.
That said, there are limitations to any hypersonic system — the Earth’s atmosphere being the biggest.
But without question, hypersonics are ballistic missile game-changers, which is why the U.S. is working so diligently to develop and deploy them.