Science & Technology



Get ready for the era of hypersonic flight — at five times the speed of sound

Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

That could be a boon for Southern California.

Thompson said the region is home to key research centers for industry and the U.S. government -- such as Lockheed Martin's secretive Palmdale Skunk Works facility and Edwards Air Force Base -- which could make it the center for hypersonics research. Boeing has said hypersonics work already is being done at its Huntington Beach facility, as well as in St. Louis and Seattle.

Major research and development programs of the past brought thousands of jobs to the region. When the B-2 stealth bomber neared its production peak in 1992, plane builder Northrop had 9,000 workers in Pico Rivera and 3,000 more in Palmdale.

U.S. development of hypersonics dates to the 1940s, when JPL attached a WAC Corporal rocket in the nose of a German V-2 rocket to create a two-stage rocket as part of the Army's Bumper program. Launched from New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range in 1949, the rocket reached 5,150 mph, or about Mach 6.7.

Another major breakthrough came in the 1950s and 1960s with the X-15 program, experimental rocket-propelled aircraft that reached a top speed of Mach 6.7 and were designed to advance understanding of hypersonic flight.

Data from the test flights helped influence the spacecraft design of the Apollo capsule and the Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon.

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The Space Shuttle, which flew from 1981 to 2011, also reached hypersonic speeds as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere, leading to developments in heat-absorbing ceramic tiles and large, rounded edges to lower reentry temperatures.

But despite these incremental developments, hypersonics researchers say there are still big technical hurdles to solve, especially in materials science.

When reentering Earth's atmosphere, the outer surface of the space shuttle orbiter encountered temperatures of nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Aircraft-grade aluminum melts at a temperature about three times less than that, and the structure of a plane would fail at even lower temperatures.

One possible solution are materials such as titanium or nickel-based alloys, which can be used at speeds slightly beyond Mach 5. Past that, ceramic-matrix composites, a more exotic blend of strong, lightweight fibers, may be an answer.


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