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Super-Duper Hypersonic: Answering Questions About Advanced Weapon That Moves 5 Times Speed of Sound

CC0 / / Hypersonic missile
 Hypersonic missile - Sputnik International, 1920, 07.02.2022
The speed and manoeuvrability of these hypersonic missiles makes them nigh on impossible to be tracked and destroyed by existing air defence systems when they are in the air and on the move.
2With Russia, the US, and China now competing to develop the most effective hypersonic weapons, Sputnik takes a closer look at these items and just what they are capable of doing.

What is a Hypersonic Missile?

Hypersonic missiles or gliders are those that can travel at faster than Mach 5 - five times the speed of sound - in the upper atmosphere. The speed of sound, or Mach 1, is approximately 761mph (1,224kph) which means that a hypersonic glider travels at about 3,850mph (6,200kph), or a little more than a mile a second.
That is much faster than conventional weapons which are in use at present. A Tomahawk cruise missile launched from a US warship or submarine, for example, would take more than an hour to hit a target 620 miles (1,000 kilometres) away whereas a hypersonic missile would take about eight minutes.

Why are Hypersonic Missiles So Fast?

There are two main types of hypersonic weapon - namely, cruise missiles and glide vehicles. The missiles use high-speed, air-breathing engines to push them to hypersonic speeds, and hypersonic gliders are usually launched from a space rocket and glide to a target at an unpredictable trajectory.
The hypersonic cruise missiles are powered by special scramjet engines, which are still under development. Scramjets burn fuel in a stream of supersonic air, which is compressed by the forward speed of the aircraft and - unlike conventional jet engines - scramjets have no moving parts.
Hypersonic gliders are installed on ballistic missile boosters or short-range rocket systems and boosted to speeds as high as Mach 20. Then they detach and travel at hypersonic speeds through the atmosphere using the lift generated by airflow to manoeuvre.

Few Historical Details on Hypersonic Missiles

Man-made objects flying at hypersonic speeds are nothing new: in the late Thirties, Austrian engineer Eugen Sanger and his wife, German physicist Irene Sanger-Bredt, invented a hypersonic glider called the Silbervogel, but it was never built.
In 1949, Americans managed to assemble the so-called Bumper rocket, using a captured Nazi V-2 ballistic missile, the forerunner of modern space rockets and long-range missiles.
And in 1961, an era of manned space flights dawned when a rocket with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on board achieved hypersonic speed during his historic orbital flight.
Speed and manoeuvrability remain the two main factors that have kept governments interested in hypersonic missiles. Conventional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), are capable of reaching hypersonic speeds, but such ICBMs adhere to a predictable parabolic trajectory and are easier to spot and intercept. Hypersonic missiles, in turn, approach targets very quickly at low altitudes and are much more difficult to track and take down.

Hypersonic Challenges

Atmospheric drag is the main challenge facing hypersonic weapons and wind resistance increases in proportion with its speed. This has a frictional effect on the weapon so, the faster it is going, the hotter it gets and can become so intense that the surrounding air can ionise and degrade the glider’s surface.

Who's Leading in Competition?

Late last year, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia is “definitely” the leader in developing hypersonic missiles, adding that by the time other countries catch up, Moscow is likely to have developed technology to counteract these new weapons.
The Russian president earlier pointed out that tests of the country’s Zircon hypersonic cruise missile are nearing completion and its deliveries to the navy will kick off in 2022.

“It is especially important now to develop and implement the technologies necessary to create new hypersonic weapons systems, high-powered lasers and robotic systems that will be able to counter potential military threats effectively, which means they will further strengthen the security of our country,” Putin said in televised remarks.

General David Thompson, first vice chief of US Space Force admitted last year that the US was significantly lagging behind Russia and China when it came to testing hypersonic weapons.

“We're not as advanced as the Chinese or the Russians in terms of hypersonic programmes,” Thompson told the Halifax International Security Forum, adding that the US Space Force is attempting to "figure out the type of satellite constellation that we need" to track hypersonic missiles.

The statement was preceded by a report in the South China Morning Post that researchers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are seeking to improve the accuracy of the country's hypersonic delivery systems through artificial intelligence. This came after it was revealed that a Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle had been lifted into space by a Long March 2C rocket.
Apart from Russia, the US and China, countries such as France, Japan, South Korea, Australia and India are also developing hypersonic weapon programmes, having already conducted several test flights of hypersonic missiles.
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