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Hypersonic plane to fly at 20 times the speed of sound

17th July 2012

Research into stealth technology by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the 1970s and 1980s led to the world's most advanced radar-evading aircraft. This provided a major national security advantage to the United States. Today, that strategic advantage is being threatened as China and other nations' abilities in stealth and counter-stealth improve. Restoring that battle space advantage requires advanced speed, reach and range. Hypersonic technologies have the potential to provide the dominance once offered by stealth to support a variety of national security missions.

Extreme hypersonic flight at Mach 20 (i.e. 20 times the speed of sound) is an area of research where major advances have eluded researchers for decades. Thanks to programs by DARPA, the Army and Air Force in recent years, however, new information has been obtained about this challenging subject.

Integrated Hypersonics (IH) is a project currently underway at DARPA. This aims to test a full-scale, hypersonic "X-plane" by 2016. Travelling at Mach 20 (20,900 km/h), it could fly to anywhere in the world in under an hour. DARPA has already tested an early prototype hypersonic aircraft - the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) - which achieved Mach 20 in August 2011. However, this only remained airborne for nine minutes.


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The IH program expands on previous research to include five primary technical areas: thermal protection system and hot structures; aerodynamics; guidance, navigation, and control (GNC); range/instrumentation; and propulsion.

At Mach 20, vehicles flying inside the atmosphere will experience intense heat, exceeding 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than a blast furnace capable of melting steel, as well as extreme pressure on the aeroshell. The thermal protection materials and hot structures technology area aims to advance understanding of high-temperature material characteristics to withstand both high thermal and structural loads.

A new launch vehicle will be designed for the aircraft. Rocket propulsion will also be integrated into the vehicles, offering a mid-flight boost to extend their range.

DARPA will host a Proposers' Day on 14th August 2012, to detail the technical areas for which proposals are sought.

"By broadening the scope of research and engaging a larger community in our efforts, we have the opportunity to usher in a new area of flight more rapidly and, in doing so, develop a new national security capability far beyond previous initiatives," said Air Force Maj. Christopher Schulz, DARPA program manager.


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