Scramjet Engines on the Long Road to Mach 5

When Charles “Chuck” Yeager reached a speed of Mach 1.06 while flying the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis in 1947, he became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound in controlled level flight. Specifying that he reached supersonic speed “in controlled level flight” might seem superfluous, but it’s actually a very important distinction. There had been several unconfirmed claims that aircraft had hit or even exceeded Mach 1 during the Second World War, but it had always been during a steep dive and generally resulted in the loss of the aircraft and its pilot. Yeager’s accomplishment wasn’t just going faster than sound, but doing it in a controlled and sustained flight that ended with a safe landing.

Chuck Yeager and his Bell X-1

In that way, the current status of hypersonic flight is not entirely unlike that of supersonic flight prior to 1947. We have missiles which travel at or above Mach 5, the start of the hypersonic regime, and spacecraft returning from orbit such as the Space Shuttle can attain speeds as high as Mach 25 while diving through the atmosphere. But neither example meets that same requirement of “controlled level flight” that Yeager achieved 72 years ago. Until a vehicle can accelerate up to Mach 5, sustain that speed for a useful period of time, and then land intact (with or without a human occupant), we can’t say that we’ve truly mastered hypersonic flight.

So why, nearly a century after we broke the sound barrier, are we still without practical hypersonic aircraft? One of the biggest issues historically has been the material the vehicle is made out of. The Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” struggled with the intense heat generated by flying at Mach 3, which ultimately required it to be constructed from an expensive and temperamental combination of titanium and polymer composites. A craft which flies at Mach 5 or beyond is subjected to even harsher conditions, and it has taken decades for material science to rise to the challenge.

With modern composites and the benefit of advanced computer simulations, we’re closing in on solving the physical aspects of surviving sustained hypersonic flight. With the recent announcement that Russia has put their Avangard hypersonic glider into production, small scale vehicles traveling at high Mach numbers for extended periods of time are now a reality. Saying it’s a solved problem isn’t quite accurate; the American hypersonic glider program has been plagued with issues related to the vehicle coming apart under the stress of Mach 20 flight, which heats the craft’s surface to temperatures in excess of 1,900 C (~3,500 F). But we’re getting closer, and it’s no longer the insurmountable problem it seemed a few decades ago.

Today, the biggest remaining challenge is propelling a hypersonic vehicle in level flight for a useful period of time. The most promising solution is the scramjet, an engine that relies on the speed of the vehicle itself to compress incoming air for combustion. They’re mechanically very simple, and the physics behind it have been known since about the time Yeager was climbing into the cockpit of the X-1. Unfortunately the road towards constructing, much less testing, a full scale hypersonic scramjet aircraft has been a long and hard one.

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UPnP, Vulnerability As A Feature That Just Won’t Die

UPnP — in a perfect world it would have been the answer to many connectivity headaches as we add more devices to our home networks. But in practice it the cause of a lot of headaches when it comes to keeping those networks secure.

It’s likely that many Hackaday readers provide some form of technical support to relatives or friends. We’ll help sort out Mom’s desktop and email gripes, and we’ll set up her new router and lock it down as best we can to minimise the chance of the bad guys causing her problems. Probably one of the first things we’ll have all done is something that’s old news in our community; to ensure that a notorious vulnerability exposed to the outside world is plugged, we disable UPnP on whatever cable modem or ADSL router her provider supplied.

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Goodbye Chevy Volt, The Perfect Car For A Future That Never Was

A month ago General Motors announced plans to wind down production of several under-performers. At the forefront of news coverage on this are the consequences facing factories making those cars, and the people who work there. The human factor associated with the closing of these plants is real. But there is also another milestone marked by the cancellation of the Volt. Here at Hackaday, we choose to memorialize the soon-to-be-departed Chevrolet Volt. An obituary buried in corporate euphemisms is a whimper of an end for what was once their technological flagship car of the future.

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The Age of Hypersonic Weapons has Begun

With a highly publicized test firing and pledge by President Vladimir Putin that it will soon be deployed to frontline units, Russia’s Avangard hypersonic weapon has officially gone from a secretive development program to an inevitability. The first weapon of its type to enter into active service, it’s capable of delivering a payload to any spot on the planet at speeds up to Mach 27 while remaining effectively unstoppable by conventional missile defense systems because of its incredible speed and enhanced maneuverability compared to traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Rendering of Avangard reentering Earth’s atmosphere

In a statement made after the successful test of Avangard, which saw it hit a target approximately 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) from the launch site, President Putin made it clear that the evasive nature of the weapon was not to be underestimated: “The Avangard is invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defense means of the potential adversary.” The former Soviet KGB agent turned head of state has never been one to shy away from boastful claims, but in this case it’s not just an exaggeration. While the United States and China have been working on their own hypersonic weapons which should be able to meet the capabilities of Avangard when they eventually come online, there’s still no clear deterrent for this type of weapon.

Earlier in the year, commander of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the threat of retaliation was the best and perhaps only method of keeping the risk of hypersonic weapons in check: “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force.” Essentially, the threat of hypersonic weapons may usher in a new era of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), the Cold War era doctrine that kept either side from firing the first shot knowing they would sustain the same or greater damage from their adversary.

With President Putin claiming Avangard has already entered into serial production and will be deployed as soon as early 2019, the race is on for the United States and China to close the hypersonic gap. But exactly how far away is the rest of the world from developing an operational hypersonic weapon? Perhaps more to the point, what does “hypersonic weapon” really mean?

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Cybersecurity and Insurance

Insurance is a funny business. Life insurance, for example, is essentially betting someone you will die before your time. With the recent focus on companies getting hacked, it isn’t surprising that cybersecurity insurance is now big business. Get hacked and get paid. Maybe.

The reason I say maybe is because of the recent court battle between Zurich and Mondelez. Never heard of them? Zurich is a big insurance company and Mondelez owns brands like Nabisco, Oreo, and Trident chewing gum, among others.

It all started with the NotPetya ransomware attack in June of 2017. Mondelez is claiming it lost over $100 million dollars because of the incident. But no problem! They have insurance. If they can get the claim paid by Zurich, that is. Let’s dig in and try to see how this will all shake out.

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2018: As The Hardware World Turns

2018 is almost over, and we have another year in the dataset: an improbable number of celebrities died in 2016. The stock market is down, and everyone thinks a crash is coming. Journalists are being killed around the world. Fidget spinners aren’t cool anymore. Fortnite. Trade wars.

But not everything is terrible: Makerbot released a new printer and oddly no one complained. It was just accepted that it was an overpriced pile of suck. Elon Musk is having a great year, press and Joe Rogan notwithstanding, by launching a record number of rockets and shipping a record number of cars, and he built a subway that we’re not calling a subway. FPGA development is getting easier with new platforms and new boards. There is a vast untapped resource in 18650 cells just sitting on sidewalks in the form of scooters, and I’m going to keep mentioning this until someone actually builds a power wall out of scooters.

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A Daring Search for Answers in Soyuz Mystery

If you happened to tune into NASA TV on December 11th, you’d have been treated to a sight perhaps best described as “unprecedented”: Russian cosmonauts roughly cutting away the thermal insulation of a docked Soyuz spacecraft with a knife and makeshift pair of shears. Working in a cloud of material ripped loose during the highly unusual procedure, cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergey Prokopyev were effectively carving out their own unique place in space history. Their mission was to investigate the external side of the suspicious hole in the Soyuz MS-09 capsule which caused a loss of air pressure on the International Space Station earlier in the year.

That astronauts don’t generally climb out the hatch and use a knife to hack away at the outside of their spacecraft probably goes without saying. Such an event has never happened before, and while nobody can predict the future, odds are it’s not something we’re likely to see again. Keep in mind that this wasn’t some test capsule or a derelict, but a vehicle slated to return three human occupants to Earth in a matter of days. Cutting open a spacecraft in which human lives will shortly be entrusted is not a risk taken likely, and shows how truly desperate the Russian space agency Roscosmos is to find out just who or what put a hole in the side of one of their spacecraft.

Close inspection from the inside of the spacecraft confirmed the hole wasn’t made by an impact with a micrometeorite or tiny piece of space junk as was originally assumed. It appears to have been made with a drill, which really only allows for two possible scenarios: intentional sabotage or a mistake and subsequent cover-up. In either event, a truly heinous crime has been committed and those responsible must be found. As luck would have it the slow leak of air pressure was detected early and the hole was patched before any damage was done, but what if it hadn’t?

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