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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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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