Chinese aerospace engineers have used science developed by U.S. hypersonic scientists and a NASA project to tackle a proposed hypersonic launch vehicle designed to intercept hypersonic missiles.
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The system is an air-breathing engine-powered drone that can travel long distances at more than five times the speed of sound and fire “kinetic energy weapons” to neutralize incoming hypersonic missiles.
This hypothetical concept is based on a paper by a team led by Zhongjie Yin at the Shanghai Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering.
A report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) said it was published on Jan. 1 in the peer-reviewed journal Aerospace Technology. The institute is also said to be developing drones and electronics for the Chinese military.
Inappropriate flight control algorithm
“By using early warning satellites and ground-based radar stations, the aircraft can predict the trajectory of an incoming hypersonic missile and then fire a small kinetic energy weapon mid-flight to neutralize the threat. With the attack over, the aircraft can return and be ready for the next mission, ’ said the South China Morning Post.
But the design ran into “complex mathematical problems” during the high-level system design phase. The current midcourse intercept algorithm was developed for conventional missiles powered by rocket motors, not for air-breathing hypersonic aircraft. Using these equations can cause it to spin out of control or even crash.
Another mathematical problem is developing an algorithm that can accurately predict the course of a hypersonic threat, which travels extremely fast and maneuvers complexly. Such codes require highly complex calculations beyond the capabilities of the onboard computers.
Mathematical solution used by US hypersonic scientists and NASA
So the team developed a new algorithm using a mathematical solution developed by then-MIT student David Benson. The South China Morning Post added that, according to his LinkedIn profile, Benson is now one of the principal scientists in Charles Stark Draper’s lab. Hypersonic technology is one of the main research areas of the Institute.
The team hired Benson for his 2004 Ph.D. The paper proposes a mathematical solution called Gaussian pseudospectral transcription that can significantly simplify complex flight control systems for launch vehicles.
Yin’s team also used algorithms developed by NASA for its X-33 hypersonic aircraft. Although nearly complete, the X-33 project never took off and was canceled in 2001 due to technical difficulties.
Computer simulations now show that the new algorithm greatly simplifies the flight computer’s calculations. Although the new algorithm mapped out a longer flight path, it still managed to guide the aircraft to within 6.8 kilometers of the target, well within the kill zone of a kinetic weapon the aircraft could deploy.
Impressive but theoretical – experts
A former Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter pilot who is also an aeronautical engineering graduate working in software, acknowledged the research looks significant and groundbreaking, but noted the lack of a working model of the platform.
“It’s purely theoretical and computer simulations, and there’s not even a technology demonstrator that can test some concepts. It also doesn’t mention cost, because hypersonic missiles are expensive, and China already has offensive hypersonic platforms, which may have cost A lot of money to develop them. It is hard to believe that they will spend huge sums of money to develop a hypersonic-based interceptor platform. It makes little cost-benefit sense,” the pilot told Eurasia Info.
The pilot’s view stems from a belief among strategists that hypersonic missiles are in some ways becoming a new kind of nuclear weapon, serving more deterrent purposes than practical uses. However, the current war in Ukraine proves otherwise.
On August 21 last year, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia claimed to have used its air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missile against Ukrainian targets three times. This claim seems to be true, as Western military observers and scientists would immediately deny it.
There are no details about the “kinetic energy weapon” the reusable hypersonic launch vehicle intends to fire against incoming hypersonic missiles. “Conventional air-to-air or air-to-surface missile development requires ‘shock’ and ‘release’ testing of aircraft towers.
Imagine how many tests a hypersonic missile will have to unleash another weapon. It will take a long time to develop,” the former IAF pilot further added.
A scientist formerly involved with the Defense Research Development Organization’s (DRDO) Electronics and Radar Development Agency (LRDE) believes the new algorithm could lead to a new generation of flight control computers, sensors and guidance systems.
“Mathematics, software, electronics, electrical and avionics engineering are directly related. Any development in any field will affect the other field. It depends on whether Chinese scientists and their military decide to conduct research in that direction,” said the scientist Say.
As such, the report seems to be celebrating a mostly theoretical achievement that could mean a larger PR campaign to boost the country’s image as an emerging tech powerhouse.
China specializes in hypersonic missile communications?
The last time China made a credible technological breakthrough in hypersonic technology was in January 2022, when the Science and Technology Department of the Space Physics Laboratory claimed to have found a way to maintain consistent communication with hypersonic missiles.
Man-made objects generate extremely high temperatures on the surface due to friction with the Earth’s atmosphere during re-entry, creating a “plasma shield” that disrupts communications. Ionized gas forms on the surface of a hypersonic weapon and blocks the signal. The problem is known as the “black screen” due to the inability of ground-based radars to identify and lock on to hypersonic targets behind plasma bunkers.
Tianjin University’s School of Precision Instrument and Optoelectronic Engineering has invented a laser system that can emit continuous electromagnetic beams in the terahertz band, which is needed for 6G next-generation communication technology. This follows a breakthrough in 6G technology in January 2022, when researchers achieved a record transmission speed of 206.25 gigabits per second.
Another study on hypersonic missile communications jamming proposed a large high-frequency communications network consisting of ground stations orbiting satellites and ships.
Still, all four of these developments show a consistent scientific push, especially for hypersonic communications. Although fraught with shortcomings, these individual scientific achievements often constitute great technological advances.