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17 July 2017

Woomera hypervelocity missile tests a success, says Marise Payne

AUSTRALIA has quietly concluded a set of test flights of a missile capable of cutting through the skies at more than 10,000km/h — and still change course.

Any missile — or aircraft — capable of moving at such speeds will have been and gone before any defensive system could react.

And while China and Russia have both been boasting of their own advances in the field, Australia has also been working away with the United States to perfect the technology.

A HIFiRE test rocket launches at Woomera in 2012.

A HIFiRE test rocket launches at Woomera in 2012.Source:Supplied

Defence minister Marise Payne says in a statement released on her website last week that the $54 million Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HiFIRE) tests recently wrapped up in the skies above the remote South Australian town of Woomera.

By definition, hypersonic speeds are any above Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound), or 6174km/h.

“Hypersonic flight is more than five times the speed of sound and has the potential to revolutionise air travel, making it faster and cheaper to travel around the world and into space,” Ms Payne says.

“There are key military applications of this technology and by understanding hypersonic flight, the Australian Defence Force will be in a better position to respond to future threats.”

REACHING FOR THE SKY

Australia and the United States have been working in partnership on hypervelocity flight for almost a decade. The first launch of one of its test vehicles was conducted in 2009, with subsequent tests including 2012 and 2016.

Tops speeds obtained have reportedly been as high as Mach 8 (9878km/h).

But controlled hypersonic flight has proven to be a serious challenge.

A series of tests around the world have failed with vehicles becoming unstable before tumbling through the skies and breaking up.

Overcoming the issues have required advances in the propulsion systems, the strength of airframes, heat-resistant materials and refining aerodynamics and creating AI-controlled avionics both fast and subtle enough to direct a craft hurtling at such immense speeds.

“While this (HiFiRE 4) is the last in the HIFiRE series, Australia remains at the leading edge of hypersonics research, test and evaluation, thanks to the work of this dedicated team of Defence scientists and their industry and academic partners,” Minister Payne says.

The experimental flight was tracked over the Woomera Test Range,

Australia and the United States is now developing plans for the next phase of hypervelocity flight experiments, she says.

‘BLINK-OF-AN-EYE’ WEAPONS

The announcement comes just weeks after China announced the ‘success’ of its hypersonic missile program, saying it would now move to make operational missiles capable of flying so fast they were almost impossible to shoot down.

RELATED: China says its hypervelocity missiles are ready to go

US Navy Pacific Command chief, Admiral Harry Harris, told a Congress hearing earlier this year: “I’m concerned about Chinese and Russian hypersonic weapons development, and I expressed those concerns in the right places. What we can do is to develop our own hypersonic weapons and improve our defences against theirs.”

A launch of a HIFiRE hypervelocity program missile testbed.

A launch of a HIFiRE hypervelocity program missile testbed.Source:Supplied

The Woomera tests are no doubt part of that development objective.

And late last month, the United States Air Force Armament Directorate issued a notice asking for suggestions for future potential hypersonic weapons systems. Specifically, it is interested in ultra-fast, but guided, missiles capable of being fired from aircraft.

While ballistic missiles can fly faster, they are not controlled. They follow predictable and high flight paths which can be easily detected and intercepted.

But a hypersonic missile or aircraft would fly on a much flatter trajectory, and potentially be able to manoeuvre to dodge incoming fire.

COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

The Australian Department of Defence says the experimental flight tests were part of a research effort involving BAE Systems, the University of Queensland, as well as the Defence Science Technology Group and AFRL.

NASA was one of the projects founding members, though is no longer directly involved.

University of Queensland Chair of Hypersonic Propulsion Professor Michael Smart said in a statement that the “triumph” advanced the realisation of hypersonic flight.

“Hypersonic flight has the potential to revolutionise air travel, making it faster and cheaper to travel around the world and into space,” said Professor Smart.

“Fundamental research conducted over many years by UQ’s Centre for Hypersonics, within the School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering, has made a significant contribution to this and previous HIFiRE flights.”.

BAE Systems has also declared the test a success, saying it was “the most complex of all HIFiRE flights conducted to date, to further the fundamental scientific understanding of hypersonic flight.”

“This flight trial is a significant step forward in proving this technology and enhancing our collective understanding of how it could be employed across a range of applications.”

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