In orbit: the Air Force partners with NASA for hypersonic research

Current basic research at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is already beginning to shape the technologies that could inform the construction of hypersonic weapons in decades to come. At the same time, it is generating near-term results, including a groundbreaking first-of-its-kind test of the air-launched, rapid-response hypersonic weapon from a B-52.

Ongoing basic research experiments aim to discover disruptive technologies capable of changing the conflict paradigm. Although AFRL innovators often seek short-term applications where possible, current research into composite materials, weapon shapes and configurations, thermal management, and efforts to manage airflow or the “boundary layer” surrounding hypersonic flight are beginning to show promise.

Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, commanding general of the Air Force Research Lab, told the national interest that AFRL scientists are now intensely focused on fundamental research in the field of hypersonics, with particular emphasis on the search for paradigm-shifting materials, guidance systems and explosives. Many collaborative efforts, Pringle explained, involve key partnerships between the AFRL and allied nations, industry collaborators and even universities.

For example, if the airflow surrounding a hypersonic projectile is smooth, the weapon is more likely to stay in its target’s path when traveling at speeds greater than five times the speed of sound. However, turbulent airflow can cause molecules to move in the immediate area surrounding the weapons, dramatically impacting the temperatures needed to sustain hypersonic flight. One of the main reasons there is so much exploration of new composite materials is that scientists continue to search for new combinations of chemicals, composites and more heat-resistant materials to increase the likelihood that a hypersonic weapon can maintain its trajectory or even adjust. in flight to hit moving targets.

As part of this effort, the AFRL is partnering with NASA, Australia, and various US academic partners. “As recently as March 21 of this year, we conducted an experiment at NASA Wallops Flight Facility. We had a boundary layer turbulence bulk flight experiment, which was successfully launched,” Pringle said.

Pringle explained that the successful test is already defining new areas of focus.

“What that did was it helped inform research on the boundary layer where the air is so much more turbulent. We were looking at complex geometries that are different from the systems we have today. By doing these kinds of experiments, by partnering up in this way and doing basic research, we are informing the forms of weapons, aircraft and flight systems that we will have in the future. to heart and we have been investing in it for a long time,” said Pringle.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the national interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a highly trained expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army – Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. Osborn also worked as an on-air military anchor and specialist on national television networks. He has appeared as a guest military pundit on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also holds an MA in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Flickr/US Department of Defense.

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