The Hypersonic WaveRider aircraft is an experimental jet being conducted by the Air Force that can fly 4,500 mph and can cross the Atlantic in just one hour.
Aerospace engineers say that harnessing technology capable of sustaining hypersonic speeds is crucial to the next generation of missiles, military aircraft, spacecraft — and even passenger planes.
“Attaining sustained hypersonic flight is like going from propeller-driven aircraft to jet aircraft,” said Robert Mercier, deputy for technology in the high-speed systems division at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio.
“Since the Wright brothers, we have examined how to make aircraft better and faster. Hypersonic flight is one of those areas that is a potential frontier for aeronautics. I believe we’re standing in the door waiting to go into that arena.”
NASA and the Pentagon are financing three national centers across the country to study hypersonic flight. The Pentagon’s research arm, known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, calls hypersonic flight “the new stealth” for its promise of evading and outrunning enemy fire. The effort to develop hypersonic engines is necessary because they can propel vehicles at a velocity that cannot be achieved from traditional turbine-powered jet engines.
The Pentagon believes that hypersonic missiles are the best way to hit a target in an hour or less. The only vehicle that the military currently has in its inventory with that kind of capability is the massive, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
Other means of hitting a distant target, such as cruise missiles and long-range bomber planes, can take hours to reach their destination.
In addition, an aircraft like the WaveRider is crucial to commercial planes to fly nonstop at high speeds from one side of the Earth to the other.