I-Team: How to track hypersonic objects? UNLV professor advised the Pentagon

I-Team

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A new and expensive arms race seems to be heating up. Billions of dollars have already been earmarked for the development of hypersonic systems, including offensive and defensive missiles.

This comes in response to work being done by our potential enemies who claim they already have hard-to-hit missiles capable of hypersonic speeds.

Russian hypersonic vehicle. (Russian news agencies)

It turns out one local engineering professor was way ahead of the curve on research into hypersonic tech.

Hypersonic means faster than the speed of sound. As we know, America’s military broke the sound barrier a long time ago, but there is a new sense of urgency because of reports that Russia and China have weapons that can travel Mach 10 or faster, too fast for us to shoot them down.

One UNLV engineer was already looking at this challenge a decade ago as part of a classified Pentagon program.

The universe is full of surprises. Every day, chunks of space rock, or other unknown objects, slam into our atmosphere traveling at hypersonic speeds. Often, we don’t see them coming. In recent months, American adversaries including Russia’s Vlad Putin, have boasted of operational missile systems capable of hypersonic speeds — Mach 10 or more — that is, 10 times the speed of sound, so fast they can’t be stopped, or even tracked.

North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I have no doubt the Russians are able to make hypersonic missiles. Whether they actually are or not, I don’t know. The U.S. is capable of making them also,” said Dr. Bill Culbreth, UNLV engineering professor.

He is not a newcomer to the wave of official interest in hypersonic tech. Culbreth, a rocket scientist and nuclear engineer, was tasked a decade ago with projecting into the future to identify the challenges associated with detecting and tracking hypersonic vehicles.

UNLV professor William Culbreth. (KLAS-TV)

His paper looked at the state-of-the-art back then, and speculated on technology that might be able to detect blazingly-fast surprises, including foreign missiles. It was one of 38 papers commissioned by the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, to peer into future aerospace technologies, including ideas that, at the time, verged on sci-fi. Today, though, they don’t sound so far out.

Courtesy: DARPA

“We looked at technology people had envisioned, that included chemical rockets, nuclear fission rockets, nuclear fusion rockets, anti-matter and even the possible use of rotating black holes in order to create propulsion systems,” Culbreth said. “All of these seemed very blue sky. Right now at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), people are putting, in little bottles, anti-matter, anti-hydrogen. And anti-matter is an extremely dense energy. So, we’re getting there.”

Courtesy: Raytheon

Spooked by reports of Russian and Chinese hypersonic systems, the Pentagon and key congressional committees have launched what sounds like a new hypersonic arms race. Defense publications are abuzz with news about classified research programs. Nine different programs are reportedly underway within major defense contractors, including at least one prototype that could travel Mach 20, more than 11,000 miles-per-hour.

Related links:
Report to Congress on hypersonic weapons
Hypersonic missiles are unstoppable. And they’re starting a new global arms race
Russia’s new hypersonic missile travels nearly 2 miles a second

Culbreth’s paper addressed the difficulties of tracking anything that fast.  Now, reports indicate his suggestions are being heeded. One program already funded would ring the planet with a system of early warning sensors to look for anything that travel faster than Superman. An even bigger challenge, Culbreth said, is building something that could defend against a hard-to-hit hypersonic object.

“The typical defense technique used now is hit a missile with a missile, like the Patriot anti-missile batteries, in order to do that, you have to have a missile that travels much faster than the target, and as hypersonic missiles that can deliver weapons become more prevalent, it’s going to be more difficult to make things that can shoot them down.

At UNLV, Culbreth and colleagues have also pondered a related challenge –what materials can be used to make hypersonic craft since even titanium melts at less than Mach 6.

“Yeah we have a group that’s working on composite materials, we’re also working on novel materials,” Culbreth said.

His original paper was written as part of a classified program, though the paper itself wasn’t classified. It was originally made available to defense agencies and their contractors and generated positive reactions. It’s even more relevant today. Just google the word hypersonic and see for yourself. 

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