The Pentagon’s internal technology accelerator has awarded two contracts aimed at delivering a reusable hypersonic vehicle and launch system.
The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) on 15 March issued its first hypersonic development contracts to two firms: Australia’s Hypersonix Launch Systems and California-based Fenix Space.
The goal of the new programme is to reduce the cost and increase the pace of hypersonic testing, the Department of Defense (DoD) says.
“Testing is both costly, slow to iterate and test ranges are limited,” the DIU notes. “The resulting slow pace of hypersonic research and development has significantly impacted the DoD’s ability to mature hypersonic technology and retain a competitive advantage.”
The latest hypersonic research effort was launched by the DIU last September and attracted 63 bidders, according to the office. The technology incubator is seeking to produce “a suite of modern, low-cost, high-cadence, dual-use airborne testing platforms”.
Requirements for the contract include providing an airborne testing vehicle capable of maintaining speeds above Mach 5 with a manoeuvrable and non-ballistic flight profile. The vehicle must also boast at least a 3-minute flight duration with “near-constant flight conditions”, the DIU says.
Hypersonix will provide that flight vehicle in the form of the company’s Dart AE: a hydrogen-fuelled scramjet craft produced in partnership with autonomous aircraft developer Kratos.
Dart AE, according to Hypersonix, is the world’s first airframe to be produced entirely using 3D printing – also known as “additive engineering”. Kratos will provide the Dart’s rocket booster, while Hypersonix produces the airframe and scramjet engine.
“Our vehicles are capable of non-ballistic flight patterns to at least M7,” says David Waterhouse, managing director at Hypersonix. “Our longer-term focus is to capture a slice of the emerging multi-billion-dollar commercial market for deployment of small satellites, but clearly Australia’s strategic defence allies see immediate potential in our technology.”
Hypersonic flight is generally defined as speeds of M5 or higher.
Waterhouse notes the DIU contract represents the first major contract for the Australian start-up.
“This puts Australia one step closer to being a major player in the international space race,” he adds.
The DIU awarded a second contract to San Bernardino, California-based Fenix Space for the company’s reusable tow-launch system, known as the HyCAT.
Imagery on the Fenix website depicts a regional jet-style aircraft towing a second vehicle while in flight. Fenix describes the system as a “launch pad in the sky”, saying it promises the capability of “on-demand launch from existing airports” with no weather delays.
The DIU says the tow-launch HyCAT system will “improve the efficiency and affordability of high-cadence [hypersonic] test flights”.
The office notes that towing a hypersonic vehicle to high altitudes “bypasses the most fuel-intensive phase of the launch process, reducing costs and offering increased flexibility in operating locations and schedule responsiveness”.
The value of the two contracts was not disclosed. The DIU says it expects testing of the Dart AE and HyCAT pairing to take place within 12-18 months.
The US Air Force is separately under contract with Mojave, California start-up Stratolaunch to deliver its own reusable hypersonic test bed.
That company has been testing a so-called “captive carry” system, in which the hypersonic vehicle is carried aloft underneath a massive jet aircraft for a high-altitude launch.