Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Proposed New Hypersonic Flight Test Bed from Stratolaunch Systems

          By Brian Orlotti

Seattle WA based Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, the aerospace firm founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has announced that it is exploring the development of a series of rocket planes that would serve as a testbed for hypersonic flight.

As outlined in the September 20th, 2018 Geek Wire post, "Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems lays out a roadmap for hypersonic rocket planes," Stratolaunch senior technical fellow for hypersonics Stephen Corda presented a concept study detailing a delta-wing uncrewed testbed aircraft called Hyper-Z at the 22nd American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ (AIAA) International Space Planes and Hypersonic Systems and Technologies conference, which was held on September 19th - 22nd in Orlando FL.

Called the Hyper-Z, the proposed rocket plane would feature a hydrogen-fueled rocket engine as its main propulsion system, but could also be equipped with an air-breathing engine, such as a scram-jet. The craft could achieve a maximum speed of Mach 11, or a maximum altitude of 477,000 feet.

Hyper-Z would be launched from Stratolaunch, the company’s massive twin-fuselage carrier aircraft, currently the world’s largest with a wingspan of 385 feet. The Stratolaunch is presently undergoing ground tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, with its maiden test flight expected within the next few months.

Stratolaunch made its public debut in December 2011. The company was founded by American business magnate Paul G. Allen and Mojave CA based Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan, who had previously collaborated on the creation of SpaceShipOne.

The company hopes that the Hyper-Z will make hypersonic flight accessible to universities small business, and other interested parties. The craft would serve as the first in a line of rocket-powered vehicles, including a crewed orbital space plane that the company has dubbed ‘Black Ice.’

Though Stratolaunch has not made a formal decision to build the Hyper-Z nor given a timeline, the path is being prepared with the proposed building of a subscale version called Hyper-A. This precursor vehicle would be slightly bigger than the US Air Force’s Boeing-built X-51 Waverider aircraft, which made a record-setting hypersonic flight in 2013. The Hyper-A is designed to fly beyond Mach 6 and could potentially reach Mach 7.7.

Stratolaunch has already performed low-speed wind tunnel tests of the Hyper-Z design, and high-speed wind tunnel tests are to begin this fall. While no timeline has been given for Hyper-Z’s development, the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft is expected to require 1.5 to 2 years of flight testing before becoming operational. This would mean no flights of the Hyper-A could take place before 2020.

Hypersonic flight holds the civilian promise of vastly reduced global flight times as well as cheaper space launches, but will have substantial military applications as well and the program will likely need to receive initial funding from military sources.

Should Stratolaunch scrape together enough money to proceed with the Hyper-Z, both civilian and military requirements will need to be met.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

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