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Surprising Science

ETA For Hypersonic Weapons: 2025

That’s the most optimistic date presented by the US military, assuming current research continues. Earlier this month, an Air Force experimental aircraft hit a top speed of Mach 5.1.

What’s the Latest Development?

US military officials report that hypersonic weapons — which would fly at more than five times the speed of sound — could be available as soon as 2025, given current research and development progress. Earlier this month, the Air Force/DARPA experimental X-51A Waverider scramjet reached a top speed of Mach 5.1 under its own power before making a planned ocean crash landing. It was the third and final test of the vehicle and the first one to succeed, says program manager Charlie Brink, and although there are no current plans to resurrect the X-51A, other projects may be on the horizon: “We’re busily working with leadership on what the next steps are to take, and I’ll leave it at that.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Although cruise missiles travel at a speed of around 500 to 600 miles per hour, putting those missiles on an aircraft moving at more than five times that speed provides obvious advantages on the battlefield. Achieving hypersonic speeds, says Brink, “not only brings a whole set of responsiveness to the warfighter, it also…enhances the survivability of those systems as they overfly enemy territory.” Once the technology has been proven, program manager Joe Vogel thinks both military and commercial flights will be available “because the timeframes [between the two] have been shrinking over the course of many years.”

Carlos Wunderlin /

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