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DARPA continues to invest in extreme hypersonics

10 July 2012

Extreme hypersonic flight at Mach 20 is an area of research where significant scientific advancements have eluded researchers for decades. However, thanks to research by DARPA and others, significant advancements in the technical understanding of several critical areas, including aerodynamics, aerothermal effects, and guidance, navigation and control, have been made. Tackling the remaining unknowns is now the focus of a new DARPA Integrated Hypersonics (IH) programme.

The IH program expands hypersonic technology 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 experience intense heat, approaching 2,000 degrees Celsius, 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. Another goal is to optimise structural designs and manufacturing processes to enable faster production of high-mach aeroshells.

The aerodynamics technology area focuses on future vehicle designs for different missions and addresses the effects of adding vertical and horizontal stabilisers or other control surfaces for enhanced aero-control of the vehicle. Aerodynamics seeks technology solutions to ensure the vehicle effectively manages energy to be able to glide to its destination. Desired technical advances in the GNC technology area include advances in software to enable the vehicle to make real-time, in-flight adjustments to changing parameters, such as high-altitude wind gusts, to stay on an optimal flight trajectory.

The range/instrumentation area seeks advanced technologies to embed data measurement sensors into the structure that can withstand the thermal and structural loads to provide real-time thermal and structural parameters, such as temperature, heat transfer, and how the aeroshell skin recedes due to heat. Embedding instrumentation that can provide real-time air data measurements on the vehicle during flight is also desired. Unlike subsonic aircraft that have external probes measuring air density, temperature and pressure of surrounding air, vehicles traveling Mach 20 can’t take external probe measurements. Vehicle concepts that make use of new collection and measurement assets are also being sought.

The propulsion technology area is developing a single, integrated launch vehicle designed to precisely insert a hypersonic glide vehicle into its desired trajectory, rather than adapting a booster designed for space missions. The propulsion area also addresses integrated rocket propulsion technology onboard vehicles to enable a vehicle to give itself an in-flight rocket boost to extend its glide range.

The IH program is designed to address technical challenges and improve understanding of long-range hypersonic flight through an initial full-scale baseline test of an existing hypersonic test vehicle, followed by a series of subscale flight tests, innovative ground-based testing, expanded modelling and simulation, and advanced analytic methods, culminating in a test flight of a full-scale hypersonic X-plane (HX) in 2016. HX is a proposed recoverable next-generation configuration, augmented with rocket-based propulsion for highly maneuverable, long-range hypersonic platforms.

To encourage this diversity, DARPA will host a Proposers’ Day on August 14, 2012, to detail the technical areas for which proposals are sought through an upcoming competitive broad agency announcement. More information on this is available here.



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