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Artistic rendering of hypersonic aircraft above the Earth
Hypersonic weapons and aircraft travel at least five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5 (around 3,800 miles per hour). | Image: Texas A&M Engineering

Hypersonic weapons are a strategic part of U.S. defense measures, and countries worldwide are adopting this technology. However, hypersonic capabilities aren’t exclusive to national security efforts. There are countless applications for hypersonics within the commercial and defense markets, and businesses are rapidly investing in this emerging industry.

Hypersonic weapons and aircraft travel at least five times the speed of sound (or around 3,500 miles per hour), which is roughly Los Angeles to New York City in less than 45 minutes.

Researchers from Texas A&M University and collaborators from across the country are working with the Department of Defense (DOD) to lead the charge in developing innovations in hypersonics technology.

“The Joint Hypersonic Transition Office (JHTO) [within the DOD] has been given the charge from Congress to transition hypersonic technologies to systems more effectively and to assure the future workforce is prepared,” said Dr. Gillian Bussey, inaugural director of the JHTO in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering, Advanced Capabilities. “The University Consortium for Applied Hypersonics (UCAH) is designed to help accomplish this, both through applied research and activities targeting the development of this unique community.” UCAH is a five-year, $100-million program to unite numerous universities, labs and industry partners in hypersonics applied research.

UCAH was established at Texas A&M in 2020 and is managed by the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) under the direction of Dr. Rodney Bowersox, associate dean for research and Regents and Ford I Professor of Aerospace Engineering. UCAH is facilitating applied research from U.S. universities for hypersonic projects sponsored by the DOD, which includes many industry partners. As hypersonics research is complicated and costly, these partnerships are key to applied research breakthroughs and equipping a workforce that is still underdeveloped. “Establishing UCAH at Texas A&M leverages the seasoned program management expertise of TEES and the extensive hypersonic research capabilities of our faculty,” said Bowersox.

A field as broad and complex as hypersonics requires expertise from a variety of areas, from materials scientists to aerospace and mechanical engineers to fabricators and mechanics.

“Hypersonics brings together different fields and technologies that are usually disparate,” said Dr. Richard Miles, professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and University Distinguished Chair at Texas A&M. “And because everything is going so fast, it is also interacting, which poses challenges with things like heat, flow of air and shock waves.”

This incremental method of testing is used at the Texas A&M Aerospace Laboratory for Lasers and Electromagnetics and Optics (ALLEMO), where simulations and computational models are created to predict outcomes in hypersonics conditions. This testing pinpoints specific data and is more cost-effective than sending a fully constructed hypersonic craft through hypersonic conditions.

At Texas A&M, there is a rich tradition of cross-college collaboration. For example, the Texas A&M University National Aerothermochemistry and Hypersonics Laboratory has been providing an interdisciplinary venue to improve knowledge and control of non-equilibrium gaseous flows and their surface interactions for almost 20 years. In this laboratory, researchers from aerospace engineering, chemistry, physics and mechanical engineering work side-by-side to solve challenging problems in hypersonics, which provides unique research and educational experiences.

Another Texas A&M University System multidisciplinary testing facility currently under construction at the George H.W. Bush Combat Development Complex (BCDC) is the Ballistic, Aero-Optics and Materials (BAM) Test Range. BAM will be a large-scale, fully enclosed multidisciplinary research and development facility capable of evaluating high-energy laser propagation, hypersonic aerothermodynamics and hypervelocity impact response of materials and structures. Once completed, the BAM Test Range will be the largest and most fully instrumented facility of its kind in the United States. This facility will provide unique realistic flight test and evaluation opportunities for faculty, research scientists and students. 

"The DOD and defense industry are highly interested in the unique capabilities the BAM Test Range will provide for both hypersonic ground flight and directed energy testing," said Ret. Major General Tim Green, BCDC director. "The BCDC team is proud and excited to have the opportunity to support the Texas A&M System’s commitment to national security innovation as the BAM Test Range opens and takes its place among the nation’s critical experimentation and testing facilities."

“As we develop the workforce essential for the realization of new hypersonic capabilities, it is important to understand that this includes the current workforce moving into hypersonic programs, the craft force that builds our systems and students who represent the future workforce,” said Dr. John Schmisseur, Hap Arnold Chair and UCAH workforce development committee lead from the University of Tennessee Space Institute. “Academia is well-equipped to train all three of these groups, but we need to think about how to do it efficiently. This motivates us to explore new nontraditional options such as certificate programs and short courses.”