Next year, the first 3D printed hypersonic test vehicle will be launched aboard Rocket Lab (Nasdaq: RKLB)’s recently revealed hypersonic rocket.
Developed by Australian startup Hypersonix Launch Systems, the three-meter-long, entirely 3D printed hypersonic launch vehicle called DART AE (Additive Engineering) is propelled by a Spartan scramjet engine that burns hydrogen. Thanks to a partnership between Rocket Lab and Hypersonix, which was confirmed during last week’s Space Symposium in Colorado, the Plug’n’Play hypersonic system has found its first launch provider.
Commenting on the collaboration, Hypersonix CEO David Waterhouse said: “We have looked at various launch providers globally, as DART AE is designed to work with a variety of boosters. We are particularly excited to get our first ride from Rocket Lab. Their track record of successful launches, their team as well as their rockets are impressive, and we look forward to seeing DART AE fly for the first time next year”.
According to the two companies, their shared outlook on customer requirements in a growing market makes their cooperation easy. Moreover, the opportunity to work together will show the attractive benefits of what they are describing as a “new space culture and approach.” The duo are no strangers to each other and have been considering avenues of cooperation since 2020.
DART AE makes significant use of 3D printing and is powered by a hydrogen-fuelled scramjet engine. Image courtesy of Hypersonix Launch Systems.
A rocket for hypersonics
Formally introduced to the public on April 17, 2023, Rocket Lab’s new launch vehicle known as HASTE (short for Hypersonic Accelerator Suborbital Test Electron) is, in fact, derived from the Electron rocket and will provide high-cadence suborbital flight test opportunities to advance hypersonic system technology developments. With the inaugural launch scheduled to take place in the first half of 2023, it seems spot-on to anticipate that its first customer (previously described by the company as “confidential”) will be Hypersonix.
HASTE employs the same innovative carbon composite structure and 3D printed Rutherford engines as Electron but has a modified third stage for suborbital payload deployment, a larger payload capacity of up to 700 kg (1540 lbs), and options for tailored fairings to accommodate larger payloads.
Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck added: “We look forward to partnering with the innovative team at Hypersonix to deliver highly capable, frequent, and cost-effective hypersonic and suborbital test opportunities.”
Rocket Lab’s first HASTE rocket is already at LC-2 ready for launch this quarter. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab via LinkedIn.
DART AE’s scramjet engine requires a boost to Mach 5 in order to self-ignite, so once aboard HASTE, Rocket Lab anticipates that DART AE will safely get to its initial operating speed to demonstrate non-ballistic flight patterns, acceleration, flexible engine burns, and up to 1000 km range, as well as collect valuable flight data from its journey at hypersonic speed. Hypersonix anticipates that when DART AE is flying at speeds of Mach 5, the oxygen-breathing and hydrogen-fuelled engine, manufactured out of high-temperature alloys, is capable of accelerating to speeds of up to Mach 7.
The hypersonic test vehicle makes significant use of 3D printing and is powered by a single patented 3D printed scramjet engine called Spartan. The advanced fixed geometry of the engine and smart design of the DART AE vehicle developed by Hypersonix provides a simple, reliable service, claims its manufacturer. Unlike other engines on the market, Spartan’s green hydrogen fuel means its only exhaust is water vapor. Since the reusable, self-igniting engine has no moving parts, uses green hydrogen fuel, and has no carbon dioxide emissions, it minimizes the environmental impact.
David Waterhouse, CEO of Hypersonix; Nina Patz, Head of Marketing & Business Development of Hypersonix, and Michael Smart, CTO of Hypersonix. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.
Designed to lead
Hypersonix’s DART AE vehicle was originally selected by the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) as a test vehicle for the HyCAT (hypersonic and high-cadence airborne testing capabilities) program. It is designed to speed hypersonic testing and lower the costs for testing the platforms, their components, as well as sensors, communication, navigation, and guidance equipment and control.
In recent months, Pentagon leaders have said the U.S. military continues to “lag behind China” in developing hypersonic missiles and defenses that can counter next-generation weapons. In fact, one of the leaked Pentagon intelligence documents obtained by the news outlet Navy Times shows that Beijing tested a hypersonic missile this year that could hit targets beyond Japan and the U.S. territory of Guam, where U.S. forces are based and carry a “high probability” of besting American ballistic missile defenses.
A March 2023 Pentagon release regarding the contract with Hypersonix states that currently, testing is “limited to land- and sea-based test ranges optimized for low-cadence and operationally-representative tests that replicate the trajectory and velocity of the hypersonic weapon system. However, testing is both costly, slow to iterate, and test ranges are limited.” Instead, the DART AE platform is expected to bypass the most fuel-intensive phase of the launch process, reducing costs and offering increased flexibility in operating locations and schedule responsiveness.
Considering that both Hypersonix and Rocket Lab were among the first companies to receive contracts for the DIU’s HyCAT project, this collaboration seems like an inevitable next step to advancing the research and development of hypersonic systems. It is part of the new space economy being forged by commercial companies that will lead to reusable, low-cost test vehicles that could help shape next-gen aircraft.
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