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N.M. lab plays key role in Army's hypersonic weapon

Sandia National Laboratories is a key player in the Pentagon’s race to develop an unmanned “hypersonic” vehicle that can travel at least five times the speed of sound and strike a target anywhere in the world within an hour.

The Sandia News Lab, an in-house weekly, published a story this summer, detailing the labs’ role and what it called the first successful test flight of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. The lengthy story outlined the Nov. 17, 2011, 2,485-mile flight from a test facility at Kauai, Hawaii, and displayed a rendering of a conical device with fins.

Although the story was seen by thousands and remains easily available to the public online, both Sandia and the Defense Department have refused Journal requests to discuss the multi-million-dollar project or interview engineers or scientists involved with it.

Sandia Labs spokeswoman Heather Clark, who wrote the May story, referred reporters to her story and further interview requests to the Department of Defense.

The DOD issued a release immediately after the test. But DOD spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melinda F. Morgan said this month that “appropriate personnel” at the Defense Department declined to be interviewed.

The Pentagon’s ultimate goal is to develop a reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle that can take off from a conventional military runway and strike targets 10,357 miles away within an hour, according to Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research.

Defense planners say the ability to strike enemy targets faster than existing missiles can provide a strong nonnuclear deterrent to rogue dictators and terrorists.

At hypersonic speeds, a military attack would have vastly outperformed, for example, the Tomahawk-guided missiles fired at Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida training camps in Afghanistan in 1998. By the time the Tomahawks reached their targets, bin Laden, who had been at one of the camps, was miles away, according to published reports.

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The development of various prototypes of hypersonic vehicles is overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike program.

Among the handful of hy personic projects the Pentagon has funded — at the rate of about $2 billion in the past decade — is the Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.

Sandia National Labs is involved in the development of that vehicle’s rocket booster, the glide vehicle, the guidance fin system and the abort system, according to the Sandia Lab News article.

Hypersonic flight

Since the 1960s, engineers have been trying to sustain hypersonic flight, but with limited success.

Hypersonic speeds pose a myriad of challenges, ranging from control issues to the intense heat generated by friction as the craft moves through the lower atmosphere. Even with advanced materials, the craft’s surface temperature is likely to exceed 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit at Mach 6, and 5,600 degrees at Mach 8, according to Globalsecurity.com.

Meanwhile, the craft’s internal instruments and payloads have to remain operational.

Despite those challenges, hypersonic flight is viewed as the next evolutionary step in non-nuclear warfare and commercial space travel.

Unlike conventional bombs, the hypersonic weapon’s immense destructive power results from its kinetic energy — the energy resulting from its mass and incredible speed.

No images of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon have been made public, but a June 2011 environmental impact report prepared by the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command includes a computer-generated model labeled “Advanced Hypersonic Weapon: Hypersonic Glide Body.”

The image published with the Sandia Lab News article also shows a conical body with rocket-like fins.

Based on those images, the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon has a cone-shaped “glide body” that is carried into space by a conventional rocket. At an undisclosed altitude, the craft separates from the rocket and begins a controlled descent through the atmosphere, reaching hypersonic speeds before smashing into its target or, during developmental testing, into the Pacific Ocean.

Testing continues

Although the Pentagon will not say how fast the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon can go, a hypersonic vehicle being develop ed by L ock heed Martin under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — called the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 — traveled at 20 times the speed of sound before going out of control and splashing into the Pacific Ocean during an Aug. 11, 2011, test.

The Sandia Lab News story regarding the Nov. 17, 2011, test flight of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon said that project is under the direction of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.

The test veh icle wa s launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii. It flew its “non-ballistic glide trajectory at hypersonic speed” before splashing down 2,485 miles away at the Army’s Reagan Test Site on the Kwajalein Atoll, the Lab News reported.

About 50 Sandia employees viewed the test, which represented about four years of work for the lab. The project involved up to 200 employees, the article said.

It quoted David Keese, director of Integrated Military Systems Development Center 5400, as saying the flight had many firsts: the first time a Sandia-developed booster had flown a low-altitude, longrange horizontal flight path at the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere; the first time eight grid fins were used to stabilize a U.S. missile system and the first time a glide vehicle flew at hypersonic speeds at such altitude and range.

“The objective of the test was to collect data on hypersonic boost-glide technologies and test range performance for long-range atmospheric flight. Mission emphasis was on aerodynamics; navigation, guidance and control; and thermal protection technologies,” the article said.

Data collected during that test were to be used by the Department of Defense to model and develop future hypersonic vehicles and technologies.

Neither Sandia nor the DOD would comment on Sandia’s current or future role with the program.
 
 

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