The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has another high-tech project in the works, according to an agency press release. The same agency whose stealth technology in the 1970s and 1980s led to the world’s most advanced radar-evading aircraft will once again flex its muscles to give a strategic national security advantage to the United States. DARPA says that hypersonic technology could replace stealth as the technology needed to give the U.S. the advantage in future national security missions.
DARPA notes that achieving extreme hypersonic flight (20 times the speed of sound) is exceedingly difficult. However, if DARPA could develop this technology for the Department of Defense, the Air Force could fly anywhere in the world in under an hour.
“DoD’s hypersonic technology efforts have made significant advancements in our technical understanding of several critical areas including aerodynamics; aerothermal effects; and guidance, navigation and control,” said Acting DARPA Director, Kaigham J. Gabriel, in a statement. “But additional unknowns exist.”
The new DARPA Integrated Hypersonics (IH) will attempt to overcome the unknowns. “History is rife with examples of different designs for ‘flying vehicles’ and approaches to the traditional commercial flight we all take for granted today,” said Mr. Gabriel. “For an entirely new type of flight—extreme hypersonic—diverse solutions, approaches and perspectives informed by the knowledge gained from DoD’s previous efforts are critical to achieving our goals.”
DARPA will encourage “diverse solutions, approaches and perspectives” by hosting a Proposers’ Day on August 14, 2012. The purpose of the Proposers’ Day will be to detail the technical areas for which proposals are needed.
“We do not yet have a complete hypersonic system solution,” said Gregory Hulcher, director of Strategic Warfare, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, in a statement. “Programs like Integrated Hypersonics will leverage previous investments in this field and continue to reduce risk, inform development, and advance capabilities.”
The IH program will focus on the following five primary technical areas: Thermal protection system and hot structures; aerodynamics; guidance, navigation, and control (GNC); range/instrumentation; and propulsion.
There are several serious risks to vehicles that achieve extreme hypersonic flight. A vehicle flying at Mach 20 will experience intense heat (more than 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit) and extreme pressure on the aeroshell. According to DARPA, 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit is hotter than a blast furnace that melts steel. The IH program hopes to discover more about what thermal protection materials and hot structures technologies are needed to withstand the intense temperatures created by hypersonic flight.
The IH program’s aerodynamics technology area will look into future vehicle designs for hypersonic missions and the impacts of adding vertical and horizontal stabilizers for better aero-control of the vehicle. In the GNC technology area, DARPA officials are looking for better software to help the vehicle execute real-time, in-flight adjustments to wind and other factors impacting flight.
DARPA officials also want advanced technologies to place data sensors into the vehicle’s structure. However, the sensors have to be able to withstand extreme thermal and structural loads. The sensors will provide information on temperature, heat transfer and how the aeroshell skin reacts to heat. DARPA notes that hypersonic vehicles can’t take external probe measurements. The defense agency is looking for vehicle designs that incorporate new collection and measurement techniques.
The IH program’s propulsion technology area is looking for an integrated launch vehicle that can place a hypersonic vehicle in its desired trajectory. DARPA officials are also examining integrated propulsion technology onboard vehicles to help a vehicle execute an in-flight rocket boost.
“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, in a statement.
DARPA hopes to conduct a test flight of a full-scale hypersonic X-plane (HX) in 2016.