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USAF searching for hypersonic vehicle materials

The US Air Force Research Laboratory is searching for leading edge materials for reusable and expendable hypersonic vehicles to support its high speed strike weapon programme.

Air Force Materiel Command will consider thermal performance as it selects the material, according to the $2.3 million contract award to Integration Innovation posted 27 September on the Federal Business Opportunities website. Based in Huntsville, Alabama, Integration Innovation Integration has previously worked with the Defense Department and NASA on thermal protection systems supporting hypersonic vehicles.

“The objective of the RX hypersonics programme is to provide a range of materials and processing options for future hypersonic vehicles,” an AFRL spokesman said in a 10 October statement to FlightGlobal.

Leading edges refer to the surfaces that first come in contact at hypersonic speed with the super-heated airflow, such as as the front of the nose, wings and empennage surfaces.

The USAF has proposed $31.2 million in fiscal year 2018 to focus research on high temperature aerospace materials and hypersonics. Budget documents also mention plans to improve fabrication of materials required for expendable hypersonic applications. The FY2018 budget proposal details plans for both re-usable and expendable hypersonic vehicles, including limited life intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance vehicles.

While funding for hypersonics has fluctuated over the past decades, recent budgets have shown renewed interest in the technology and last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency revived its turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) propulsion system concept. The agency is also teaming up with the Air Force Research Laboratory on two recent hypersonic efforts, the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) and the Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) programme.

DARPA awarded the Advanced Full Range Engine contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne on 9 October to develop and test a reusable TBCC propulsion system for a future hypersonic vehicle. The AFRE includes a gas turbine to reach speeds over Mach 2 before engaging a supersonic combustion ramjet to reach speeds over Mach 5. Lockheed Martin has proposed a concept for an intelligence-gathering SR-72 vehicle that would use a TBCC propulsion system.

AFRL accomplished a successful propulsion test in 2010 with the Boeing X-51 Waverider, which used a ramjet engine to accelerate to Mach 5 but still required a disposable rocket for the booster stage. That work will build into the laboratory’s current hypersonic research, Jack Blackhurst, a senior executive at AFRL tells FlightGlobal.

“We haven’t put a weapon on the end of that hypersonic vehicle yet and that’s what we’re doing with the hypersonic programme over the next couple of years,” he says.

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