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2 Recent progress
3 See also
4 External links
By the early 1960s, the rapid progress towards faster aircraft since the end of World War II suggested that within a few years operational aircraft would be flying at "hypersonic" speeds. This didn't occur. Except for specialized rocket research craft like the US X-15, the speeds of operational aircraft have remained level since that time, generally in the range of Mach 1 to Mach 2.
Among civilian airliners, the goal was to move passengers from point to point cheaply rather than quickly and this favored subsonic jumbo jets rather than supersonic transports. In the military area, the goal was to create aircraft that would be maneuverable with low radar or infrared signatures and this weighed against hypersonic aircraft which would be less maneuverable and have a high infrared signature.
Hypersonic flight concepts haven't gone away, however, with low-level investigations continuing over the past decades. Now the US military and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) have formulated a "National Hypersonics Strategy" to investigate a range of options for hypersonic flight.
The different organizations have different agendas, but they have all realized they need to coordinate their activities to make progress. The Army, for example, wants to develop hypersonic missiles that can attack mobile missile launchers before they leave their launch site and disappear. NASA wants to develop new, economical, reusable launch vehicles. The Air Force is interested in a wide range of hypersonic systems, from hypersonic air-launched cruise missiles to orbital spaceplanes, that the service believes could transform it into a true "aerospace force".
Progress has been made on hypersonic technology. The USAF and Pratt and Whitney have cooperated on the "Hypersonic Technology (HyTECH)" supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) engine, which has now been demonstrated in a wind-tunnel environment. NASA's Marshall Space Propulsion Center has introduced an "Integrated Systems Test Of An Air-Breathing Rocket (ISTAR)" program, prompting Pratt & Whitney, Aerojet, and Rocketdyne to join forces for development.
To coordinate hypersonic technology development, the various factions interested in hypersonic research have formed two "integrated product teams (IPTs)", one to consolidate Army, Air Force, and Navy hypersonic weapons research, the other to consolidate Air Force and NASA space transportation and hypersonic aircraft work. Current funding levels are relatively low, no more than $85 million USD per year in total, but are expected to rise.
At present, the most advanced US hypersonics program is the $185 million USD NASA Langley "X-43A Hyper-X" effort, which will fly small test vehicles to demonstrate hydrogen-fueled scramjet engines. NASA is working with contractors Boeing, Microcraft, and the General Applied Science Laboratory (GASL) on the project.
Each X-43A test vehicle will be carried to operational speed and altitude on the nose of an Orbital Sciences Pegasus air-launched booster, to be dropped from a B-52 airplane.
The first flight, in June 2001, failed when the vehicle and rocket spun out of control about 11 seconds after the drop from the B-52. The vehicle was destroyed by the range safety officer, and it crashed into the Pacific Ocean. NASA attributed the crash to several inaccuracies in data modeling for this test, which led to a deficient design for the control system of the particular Pegasus that was utilized.
The next X-43A test is now scheduled for late 2003. The first two successful test flights are supposed to attain Mach 7, and the third flight, Mach 10.
The NASA Langley, Marshall, and Glenn Centers are now all heavily engaged in hypersonic propulsion studies. The Glenn Center is taking leadership on a Mach 4 turbine engine of interest to the USAF. As for the X-43A Hyper-X, three follow-on projects are now under consideration:
While most scramjet designs to date have used hydrogen fuel, HyTech runs on conventional kerosene-type hydrocarbon fuels, which are much more practical for support of operational vehicles. A full-scale engine is now being built, which will use its own fuel for cooling. Using fuel for engine cooling is nothing new, but the cooling system will also act as a chemical reactor, breaking long-chain hydrocarbons down into short-chain hydrocarbons that burn more rapidly.
Several scramjet designs are now under investigation with Russian assistance. One of these options or a combination of them will be selected by ONERA, the French aerospace research agency, with the EADS conglomerate providing technical backup. The notional immediate goal of the study is to produce a hypersonic air-to-surface missile named "Promethee", which would be about 6 meters (10 feet) long and weigh 1,700 kilograms (3,750 pounds).