AFRL’s Experimental Hypersonic Flight-Testing Rocket Passes CDR

An experimental test rocket used to refine the Air Force’s understanding of hypersonic flight has passed its critical design review, the service said Monday.

The X-60A, an air-dropped liquid rocket designed to help research scramjet propulsion, high-temperature materials, and autonomous control, will now be built and head to its first flight test in about a year, according to the Air Force Research Laboratory. AFRL partnered with Generation Orbit Launch Services to develop the vehicle, which is the first Small Business Innovative Research program awarded the experimental “X” designation.

“AFRL’s motivation for the X-60A program is to increase the frequency of flight testing while lowering the cost of maturing hypersonic technologies in relevant flight conditions,” the lab said in a release. “The X-60A rocket vehicle propulsion system is the Hadley liquid rocket engine, which utilizes liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants. The system is designed to provide affordable and regular access to high dynamic pressure flight conditions above Mach 5.”

According to an AFRL video, the X-60A can sustain flight for longer than one minute at more than five times the speed of sound, 70,000 to 130,000 feet above ground. It can change course mid-flight as well. Each flight costs less than $5 million.

The X-60A test program will launch from the Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville, Fla., a Federal Aviation Administration-licensed facility that offers AFRL an option other than DOD test ranges.

A digital video rendering shows the rocket would fall from a plane flying at Mach 0.7 and tilted 30 degrees upward. Once dropped, the engine would kick in, the rocket pitches up, speeds to Mach 5 or more, and enters its test altitude to cruise above 70,000 feet. Hypersonic glide begins once the engine shuts off.

It can also send data to the aircraft that carried it for post-flight analysis, according to the AFRL video.

“The X-60A is like a flying wind tunnel to capture data that complements our current ground test capability,” Col. Colin Tucker, military deputy to the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology, and engineering, said in an Air Force release last October. “We’ve long needed this type of test vehicle to better understand how materials and other technologies behave while flying at more than 5 times the speed of sound. It enables faster development of both our current hypersonic weapon rapid prototypes and evolving future systems.”