DARPA Seeks New Materials To Keep Hypersonic Vehicles From Overheating 

The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking new designs for cooling super-hot leading edges of hypersonic vehicles as they rip through the air at more than five times the speed of sound.

In a mid-December press release, DARPA explained that hypersonic weapons traveling through the atmosphere at "incredibly high speeds" create "intense friction with the surrounding air," which produces furnace-like temperatures, particularly at the leading edges or forward parts of the vehicle.

To address this thermal challenge, DARPA announced its Materials Architectures and Characterization for Hypersonics (MACH) program.

The press release describes the MACH program as an attempt to "develop and demonstrate new design and material solutions for sharp, shape-stable, cooled leading edges for hypersonic vehicles." DARPA has plans to formally release the new program on January 22, 2019, in Arlington, Virginia.

“For decades people have studied cooling the hot leading edges of hypersonic vehicles but haven’t been able to demonstrate practical concepts in flight,” said Bill Carter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office.

“The key is developing scalable materials architectures that enable mass transport to spread and reject heat. In recent years we’ve seen advances in thermal engineering and manufacturing that could enable the design and fabrication of very complex architectures not possible in the past. If successful, we could see a breakthrough in mitigating aerothermal effects at the leading edge that would enhance hypersonic performance," Carter said

According to DARPA, the MACH program will consist of two technical areas: The first will develop  thermal management systems that cool the leading edges through what they refer to as "advanced thermal design," while the second will focus on next-generation hypersonic materials research, such as new coatings and high-temperature material that do not require cooling in the first place due to the nature of the materials.

The stakes are high, as China, the US, and Russia are each striving to be the first nation to develop hypersonic weapons.

The Pentagon views hypersonic weaponry as a game-changer that could give it -- an edge on the modern battlefield. 

Hypersonic missiles are extremely difficult to detect and shoot down, even with the most advanced missile defense systems. 

While the US seems to be behind the hypersonic curve, Russia and China are also developing hypersonic missiles and, just yesterday, Russia claimed to have conducted another hypersonic weapons test - with the goal of deployment in 2019.