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U.S. successfully flight tests scramjet-powered hypersonic missile which can travel Mach 5

The U.S. military said it has successfully tested an air-breathing hypersonic weapon capable of speeds faster than five times the speed of sound.

The test, which occurred last week, was the first successful test of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) since 2013, the Pentagon said on Monday.

The missile, which is built by Raytheon, was released from an aircraft just 'seconds' before the scramjet engine from Northrop Grumman kicked on, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said in a statement.

The engine compresses incoming air with hydrocarbon fuel to create an airflow mixture capable of reaching over 1,700 meters per second, or five times the speed of sound

The HAWC missile is capable of flying at Mach 5, or five times faster than the speed of sound

The engine works by compressing incoming air with hydrocarbon fuel to create a fast airflow mixture, one capable of reaching over 1,700 meters per second, or five times the speed of sound.

'The HAWC free flight test was a successful demonstration of the capabilities that will make hypersonic cruise missiles a highly effective tool for our warfighters,' said Andrew 'Tippy' Knoedler, HAWC program manager in DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, in a statement. 

'This brings us one step closer to transitioning HAWC to a program of record that offers next generation capability to the U.S military.' 

The goals of the mission were five-fold: vehicle integration and release sequence; a safe separation from the aircraft; booster ignition and boost; booster separation and the engine to ignite; and finally, cruise. 

Earlier this year, a test of a hypersonic missile from the U.S. Air Force was abandoned after it was unable to complete its launch sequence. 

Hypersonic weapons travel in the upper atmosphere at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 kilometers (3,853 miles) per hour.

'HAWC's successful free flight test is the culmination of years of successful government and industry partnership, where a single, purpose-driven team accomplished an extremely challenging goal through intense collaboration,' Knoedler added. 

'This historic flight would not have been possible without the dedication of industry, U.S. Air Force, and Navy flight test personnel who persevered through the pandemic to make the magic happen.'

The Pentagon said on Monday that it successfully tested its Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HWAC), the first successful test since 2013

The work continues the legacy of other scramjet projects, DARPA added, including the X-30 National Aero-Space Plane and NASA's X-43 vehicles.

In 2004, NASA's experimental unmanned hypersonic aircraft X-43 reached 7,366mph (Mach 9.6) using a scramjet engine, setting the current record.

In 2019, DailyMail.com reported that the Raytheon and Northrop Grumman-developed missile would use an engine made by a 3D printer. 

Last year, DARPA said it was working with Aerojet Rocketdyne on a nearly $20 million project to develop a hypersonic rocket that could intercept enemy missiles mid-air. 

WHAT ARE HYPERSONIC WEAPONS AND ARE THEY A THREAT TO SOCIETY? 

There are two main types of hypersonic weapons: 

 Hypersonic glide vehicles

A hypersonic glide vehicle is boosted aloft on a rocket to heights of between 25 miles to 62 miles above the earth before detaching to glide along the upper atmosphere towards its target. 

It is released at a height and speed that would allow it to glide unpowered to the target. 

Control surfaces on the glide vehicle mean it can steer an unpredictable course and maneuver sharply as it approaches impact.

These glide vehicles follow a much flatter and lower trajectory than the high, arching path of a ballistic missile. 

Hypersonic cruise missiles

These missiles are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines after acquiring their target. 

While they have internal engines,  unlike regular cruise missiles, they travel far faster and higher. 

Danger to society? 

The U.S., Russia and China have the most extensive hypersonic missile programs, with Russia and China ahead of the U.S.

Other countries, such as France and the U.K., are working on their own hypersonic missile programs, but they are not expected to be viable until 2030 at the earliest.

So far, there are no known methods of stopping hypersonic missiles, which aside from the speed and range, are incredibly manueverable.

Some countries are working measures to intercept them, such as directed energy weapons, particle beams and non-kinetic weapons, but those are still years away from implementation.

In August 2021, the Congressional Research Service published a paper outlining the hypersonic capabilities that the U.S., Russia and China have. 

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