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Hypersonic plane to fly at 20 times speed of sound

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Hypersonic travel almost a reality

Within four years we'll be able to travel anywhere on earth in an under an hour. At least that's the hope of the US military as it spearheads technological development and flight tests X-planes.

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The US military aims to fly a hypersonic plane at 20 times the speed of sound by 2016.

The X-plane will travel at Mach 20 (roughly 20,900 km/h), which means it could fly to any place on earth in less than an hour.

The project, titled Integrated Hypersonics, is being carried out by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has developed stealth aircraft for the US government for over 30 years.

The Falcon hypersonic HTV-2 aircraft.

The Falcon hypersonic HTV-2 aircraft.

"We have the opportunity to usher in a new area of flight more rapidly," said US Air Force Major Christopher Schulz, who is also the program manager at DARPA. "And in doing so, develop a new national security capability far beyond previous initiatives."

According to the government agency, the project comes in response to the US's military advantage being threatened by other nations' increasing abilities in stealth and counter-stealth warfare.

DARPA has conducted two test flights of prototype hypersonic aircraft in the past two years. In August last year, the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) reached Mach 20, but only remained airborne for nine minutes.

The X-plane will travel at roughly 20,921 km/h.

The X-plane will travel at roughly 20,921 km/h.

The HTV-2 was developed in conjunction with the advanced Conventional Prompt Global Strike weapons program with the goal of creating a bomber able to reach any target on the globe in under an hour.

The program's research will focus on five key areas: thermal protection system and hot structures; aerodynamics; guidance, navigation and control (GNC); range/instrumentation; and propulsion.

Thermal protection is a crucial issue for hypersonic flight, which is defined as anything over Mach 5. A vehicle flying inside the atmosphere at Mach 20 would experience temperatures in excess of 1920 degrees Celsius - hot enough to melt  steel. The project will also aim to improve design and manufacturing processes, in order to able faster production.

"We do not yet have a complete hypersonic system solution," said Gregory Hulcher, director of strategic warfare at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. 

"Programs like Integrated Hypersonics will leverage previous investments in this field and continue to reduce risk, inform development, and advance capabilities," he said.

A new launch vehicle will be designed for the hypersonic aircraft, rather than adapting an existing rocket booster that was designed for space missions, DARPA said. Rocket propulsion technology will also be integrated into the vehicles to give a mid-flight rocket boost that would extend the range of the flight.

Proposed advancements in aerodynamics and GNC technologies will allow the X-plane to make in-flight adjustments to deal with changing external conditions, increasing the safety of the vehicles.

Moving forward, the program will conduct further ground tests and test flights of prototype vehicles, as well as modelling and simulation that will culminate in a full-scale flight of the X-plane in 2016.

DARPA will host an event on August 14 in Arlington, Virginia, to detail the areas for which technical and research proposals are being sought. 

74 comments

  • Freakin' awesome.
    We're finally getting somewhere. LEO spaceplanes from private companies, asteroid mining from Planetary Resources, hypersonic planes whose technology can help spacecraft enter our atmosphere more safely.
    I'm excited for my kids to grow up with space as a real frontier that's within their grasp.

    Commenter
    TechHead
    Location
    in your base
    Date and time
    July 17, 2012, 1:55PM
    • To 'TechHead', i'm affraid that this has nothing to do with LEO spaceplanes, this is a weapons system designed as part of the 'Global Strike Command' being set up by Obama to enable the United States to rapidly deploy weapons to anywhere on earth without having to use ballistic missiles (which could start a nuclear wear).

      The Wedge Shaped craft is essentially an ultra-high speed cruise missile which will likely strike it's target at Mach 20, loaded with super dense alloys which will turn into Plasma upon impact, the destruction caused would be akin to a small nuclear warhead, but without resorting to nukes.

      The idea is to turn Issac Newton into your Worst Enemy, you can't jam it, you can't shoot it down (the craft is a solid chunk of metal alloy travelling at Mach 20) and unless you have some extremely good early waring - if you spot them in launch or cruise phase - you'll be unlikely to get out of it's way, as by the time this thing is visible on the horizon to your early warning radar (assuming it's even capable of analyzing something moving that fast) you will literrally have mere seconds to evade it.

      Extremely useful for taking down valuable targets in known locations without having to forward-deploy forces (such as special ops, missile, navy ships, bombers etc). You can literally destroy your enemy from home soil.

      Expect tighter integration with the ever expanding Drone forces as well.

      Commenter
      JohnO
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 17, 2012, 2:17PM
    • So why is this weapon any more or less likely to start a war, than a conventional ballistic missile is ?

      Commenter
      enno
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      July 17, 2012, 2:38PM
    • yep - its a missile with enough kinetic force to put a huge crater anywhere on the planet in less then hour - another great advancement for mankind........

      Commenter
      dumb human tech
      Date and time
      July 17, 2012, 3:22PM
    • This is actually a pretty old program. I remember reading about Hypersonic planes and seeing pictures that look almost the same as the current X-plane when I was a teenager (I'm 50 now!). So no, I don't see anything flying faster than Mach5 in the next 20 years (apart from small weapons systems perhaps). The technical hurdles are very hard.

      Commenter
      Ken
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 17, 2012, 3:24PM
    • While somewhat slower, this will likely be a whole lot cheaper and more "useful".
      http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/concordes-successor-revealed-at-paris-air-show-2300191.html
      Tokyo to Paris in 3hrs. Prototye unlikely to appear before 2020.

      Commenter
      Shady
      Date and time
      July 17, 2012, 4:11PM
    • JohnO is right.

      The Amerkins are developing a "Rod-From-God". With all the force of a nuke, without the radiation fallout.

      Commenter
      anon
      Location
      anon
      Date and time
      July 17, 2012, 4:18PM
    • 3 Stubby trip around the world.

      Commenter
      Johnnybalmain
      Date and time
      July 17, 2012, 4:22PM
    • JohnO

      Yep, I'm aware this isn't a spaceplane. What I'm saying is, with PRIVATE ENTERPRISE creating space planes (see companies like Virgin Galactic, but there are others), just like other military inventions, the tech will filter down to civilian use.

      Thermodynamics is a very different beast at hypersonic speeds, compared to supersonic or subsonic. Machines almost have to be designed twice because the physics are so extreme - once for super and subsonic, once for hypersonic and beyond.

      Commenter
      TechHead
      Location
      in your base
      Date and time
      July 17, 2012, 4:54PM
    • @ JohnO "...being set up by Obama ..."
      Oh really? How do you know this?
      And wouldn't a highly technical project like this have been developed for much longer than Obama has been president?

      Commenter
      cross eyed
      Date and time
      July 17, 2012, 5:18PM

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