Whatever the future may hold, one thing is certain, hypersonic technology is here to stay. Will it usher in an age of space elevators as RSnake discussed in his conversation with Dr. Leon Vanstone, rocket scientist and CEO of Verdecode? Who knows? But it could have a significant impact on our lives.
The Potential Impact of Hypersonic Technology
The ability to move objects at hypersonic speeds (Mach 5 and above) will have implications for a number of sectors. The Department of Defense (DOD) is already feeling pressure to acquire hypersonic missiles and defend against them, since China and Russia both have hypersonic weapons in their arsenals. But the defense industry won’t be the only one affected. The advent of hypersonics could change a number of industries including the airline industry, aerospace and even the mining sector.
In future, many developed countries including Russia, China, and the United States of America will all have hypersonic missiles, and likely hypersonic planes as well. We are already seeing hypersonic missiles in the air. Russia recently used them in its war with the Ukraine. China has already developed a hypersonic reconnaissance drone, and Russia is reportedly working on a hypersonic aircraft too. As a result, the U.S. has bumped up its spending on hypersonic research since 2019. Funds are targeted at both developing hypersonic weapons, and to figure out how best to defend against them. The growing capabilities of Russia and China in this area are concerning. Hypersonic missiles give countries the opportunity for a sneak attack. Hypersonic missiles are more difficult to detect than ballistic missiles, and can be maneuvered during flight, masking their final destination. They can also be fitted with nuclear warheads. With Chinese aggression growing in the South Pacific, hopefully American investment in this technology will help deter China enough that this U.S. General’s prediction never comes true.
Hypersonic technology isn’t just for warfare. In future, the airline industry could be transformed by hypersonic planes. Startups in the U.S., Switzerland, and China are all hoping to get passengers around the world in just an hour or two. While these flights would certainly be the most expensive, those who could afford it might jet around the world in very little time. Someone in New York could potentially jaunt to Australia for a performance at the Sydney Opera House, then be back home in time for dinner. With many companies like the Swiss Destinus exploring the use of hydrogen for these ultra fast planes, all this new travel may leave a minimal carbon footprint. And innovation in hypersonic fuel has the potential to impact regular subsonic flight as well. The future might see more of us flying to exotic destinations guilt-free.
But hypersonic flight also has the potential to get people and cargo into space more easily. Right now, people reach space with the help of huge, heavy rockets that are only used once. Many people hope that hypersonic technology could pave the way for completely reusable space craft, lowering the ticket price for both researchers and space tourists. In his conversation with RSnake, Vanstone noted that British company Reaction Engines is working on an engine that could launch a vehicle from earth, into space and back again. “It's basically an aeroplane. It takes off and it flies up to some really high speed faster than most of these vehicles can fly, and then a rocket kicks in and does the rest. Now you're in space,” he said. Moon walk, anyone? Getting up into space more easily could also open up new possibilities in mining. Space mining has long tempted people looking to get rick quick – in space. Having vehicles capable of quickly entering space and coming back again could finally put the wealth of the asteroid belt within reach.
Hypersonics also have implications for the mining industry on earth. When he spoke with RSnake, Vanstone showcased a hypersonic projectile that was being developed with the mining industry in mind. “The way we currently mine hard rock is you just rub it really aggressively with much enthusiasm, basically,” he said. “You can meteor these things into the ground and you can very efficiently tunnel.” He explained that the ability to access hard rock on earth could release previously untapped precious metal deposits. Since this method is more efficient, it could also reduce the environmental impact of mining practices.
The Challenges of Hypersonic Technology
But the course of innovation never does run smooth. There are challenges to getting hypersonic technology to work the way people dream it can.
Hypersonic technology is expensive. There’s not only the cost of the high-tech materials that need to withstand extremely high temperatures, but also infrastructure like wind tunnels to test the new technology. In terms of missiles, for example, it is estimated that a single missile could cost almost $15 million. Since the technology is cutting-edge, anyone exploring it also needs the funds to hire the best brains in the business.
Travel at hypersonic speeds causes vehicles to heat up to around 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Not many types of material can withstand those temperatures. Now imagine you want to have passengers in a plane traveling at that temperature. Making sure the heat doesn’t impact travelers is an important consideration scientists will have to deal with before anyone sets foot in a hypersonic airplane. The fact that to date the only hypersonic plane is an unmanned drone is telling.
Changes in the atmosphere can also make hypersonic flight very difficult. “You think turbulence on a plane is bad. Wait until you do that five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten times faster. You hit these pockets and they're coming at you much quicker, they're harder to see,” explained Vanstone. “Rain. Rain at 5,000 miles an hour. That's a bullet.”
Traveling at hypersonic speeds is also hard on sensors. This can make it difficult for a hypersonic weapon to hit a target accurately, but also has implications for the potential of commercial hypersonic flight. Imagine being in a plane that didn’t have a way to sense where it was, or communicate with people on the ground or other airplanes.
Hypersonic technology is new, and like any new technology, people will need to think deeply about how it should be used. A new arms race has already begun with China, Russia, and the U.S. competing for the latest hypersonic tech. But should we as a species really be putting more effort into instruments of war when so many in the world go hungry? Today’s leading scientists, engineers, and politicians will be instrumental in sculpting the future of our world. Let’s hope they approach hypersonic technology with the care and forethought it deserves.
Hypersonic technology has already changed the world, and it will continue to do so. It’s pushing innovation in aerospace, commercial flight, mining, and defense. There are challenges to overcome. Scientists still have many problems to solve before anyone takes a day trip to the moon. But the possibilities for air and space travel are thrilling. The possibilities that hypersonic missiles present are frightening. But with the U.S. bolstering both its hypersonic capabilities and defenses, the worst will hopefully never come to pass. For more on hypersonic technology, check out some of our other articles, and listen to RSnake’s chat with Dr. Leon Vanstone.