USA conducts first successful test flight of hypersonic missile concept

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DARPA and the US Air Force have completed a free flight test of its Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept last month.

The Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) last week, which has been built by Raytheon was released from an aircraft seconds before its Northrop Grumman scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) engine operated. The engine compressed incoming air mixed with its hydrocarbon fuel and began igniting that fast-moving airflow mixture, propelling the cruiser at a speed greater than Mach 5.

The HAWC vehicle operates best in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, where speed and manoeuvrability make it difficult to detect in a timely way. It could strike targets much more quickly than subsonic missiles and has significant kinetic energy even without high explosives.

“The HAWC free flight test was a successful demonstration of the capabilities that will make hypersonic cruise missiles a highly effective tool for our warfighters,” said Andrew Knoedler, HAWC program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “This brings us one step closer to transitioning HAWC to a program of record that offers next generation capability to the US military.”

The goals of the HAWC testing and development program were to demonstrate the vehicle integration and release sequence, safe separation from the launch aircraft, booster ignition and boost, booster separation and engine ignition, and cruise. All primary test objectives were met.

The achievement builds on pioneering scramjet projects, including work on the X-30 National Aero-Space Plane as well as unmanned flights of NASA’s X-43 vehicles and the U.S. Air Force’s X-51 Waverider.

“HAWC’s successful free flight test is the culmination of years of successful government and industry partnership, where a single, purpose-driven team accomplished an extremely challenging goal through intense collaboration,” Knoedler added. “This historic flight would not have been possible without the dedication of industry, US Air Force, and Navy flight test personnel who persevered through the pandemic to make the magic happen.”

The HAWC flight test data will help validate affordable system designs and manufacturing approaches that will field air-breathing hypersonic missiles to our warfighters in the near future.

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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