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DARPA's hypersonic 'Glide Breaker' could blast missile threats out of the sky

An artist's concept of DARPA's Glide Breaker anti-hypersonic-weapon system. (Image credit: DARPA)

Aerojet Rocketdyne is working on technology to help knock high-speed maneuverable vehicles out of the sky, under a new contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Since 2018, DARPA has been developing a "hypersonic defense interceptor" system called Glide Breaker, which is designed to intercept threatening vehicles moving at hypersonic speeds (meaning, at least five times faster than the speed of sound) in Earth's upper atmosphere. 

Aerojet Rocketdyne will develop "enabling technologies" for Glide Breaker under the newly announced contract, which is worth up to $19.6 million. 

Related: The most dangerous space weapons ever

"Advancing hypersonic technology is a national security imperative," Eileen Drake, Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and president, said in a statement. "Our team is proud to apply our decades of experience developing hypersonic and missile propulsion technologies to the Glide Breaker program."

Based on the images available on DARPA's Glide Breaker program page, it appears that the new tech will involve launching missiles to hit hypersonic vehicles in flight. No other information about the program, however, is available on the web page.

Aerojet Rocketdyne pointed to other contracts it has with DARPA to show its expertise in hypersonic flight, using either solid-fuel propulsion or engines that are "air-breathing" (typically, gas turbine engines). 

Both of these technologies were used in the X-51A WaveRider, a vehicle developed by DARPA, the U.S. Air Force and NASA that made the longest-ever hypersonic flight for a vehicle of its kind in May 2013. Aerojet Rocketdyne also did propulsion system test firings for a future ground-launched hypersonic missile, under DARPA's Operational Fires program.

Developing technologies that can knock incoming missiles or other fast-moving vehicles out of the sky is a priority for militaries around the world. The U.S. has worked on numerous such ideas over the years, some of which never got off the ground. 

One of the most famous mothballed concepts was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a complex, space-based system championed by President Ronald Reagan; opponents derisively dubbed it "Star Wars."   

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.

  • Anonymous010
    Gotta do what we gotta do, I guess, but I'd much rather see DARPA develop a reusable solution to stopping incoming missiles (like lasers or microwaves). Sending up hypersonic gliders just so that they can kamikaze into warheads is wasteful.
    Reply