By James Griffiths, James Griffiths Portfolio Manager, Developing Markets, AllianceBernstein
Hypersonic flight promises new capabilities as well as more frequent flights
“Hypersonic” is a particularly fickle term to define because of the fast speeds required for flight and the difficulty in defining exactly what speed an aircraft can attain. From the 100-200kph (60-88mph) range hypersonic flight is often defined as falling beyond the speed of sound or Mach 5 and falling in shortitudes of Mach 4 and below. If you’re thinking of hypersonic flight, just think of flight through space with the speed of sound and the lack of atmosphere.
Unsurprisingly, hypersonic flight is all about speed. How fast can you go? In 2015, an early attempt at a hypersonic jet lost control while approaching a target over the Pacific Ocean and plunged into the sea.
“How fast can you go?”
What this means is that it will be easier to explore this new frontier of flight. For example, a report by Bloomberg and Virginia Tech says that delivering cargo to London from New York in 13 minutes is a realistic capability for the future, as long as inflation does not erode payload efficiency.
The consensus across companies, governments and other entities is that hypersonic flight – at the upper end of hypersonic travel and with speeds above Mach 10 and 1,000km/h – is the next great frontier and possible capability to surpass the performance of both supersonic and conventional flight. And perhaps further down the line for commercial space travel.
Given the speed required and the still early stage of development, it would seem the US government is committed to hypersonic flight and, being one of the world’s leading scientific forces, is investing heavily in hypersonic flight technologies.
Projects being undertaken by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and NASA – as well as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – in the US include the Advanced Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2. Additional efforts in the UK include work on an advanced hypersonic “beam-to-beam” communications link between the UK Space Agency, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and Rolls-Royce.
Flying above the Earth
Can this new aircraft, and all the others in the pipeline, come off the ground?
Given the progress made over the past year, it seems increasingly likely that it will. Following months of testing at atmospheric altitudes, three hypersonic rockets were fired at Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska at the end of June. These initial launches demonstrated a new technology called X-ray processing, which combines in-air ballistic missile (BMW) guidance with liquid hydrogen fuel to achieve hypersonic speeds.
The first two launches achieved a maximum speed of Mach 4 (4,200km/h) – and a minimum of Mach 2.5 (1,500km/h). This is a clear demonstration of a new technology and will be followed by a series of additional tests to achieve higher speeds.
Although the suborbital missiles tested in June were returned safely, these were likely the end of the hypersonic flight activity in the short term.