Generation Orbit’s GOLauncher1 Is Officially the Air Force’s X-60A Hypersonic Flight Research Vehicle

The X-60A has the potential to increase United States Air Force hypersonic capabilities while also serving as a low-cost testbed for microgravity and planetary science research.

The X-60A air-dropped, liquid oxygen and kerosene propelled rocket is specifically designed for hypersonic flight research. (Image source: Generation Orbit)

The United States Air Force  (USAF) has designated the GOLauncher1 (GO1) hypersonic flight research vehicle as X-60A. The vehicle is currently being developed by Atlanta-based Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc . under contract to the Air Force Research Laboratory  (AFRL) Aerospace Systems Directorate  High Speed Systems Division.

The winged X-60A operates in a fashion similar to NASA’s X-43A unmanned hypersonic aircraft and current hypersonic missile designs, with the test vehicle dropping from an underwing pylon of a carrier aircraft. (Image source: Generation Orbit)

The X-60A is an air-dropped, liquid oxygen and kerosene propelled rocket, specifically designed for hypersonic flight research. The vehicle propulsion system is the 5,000 pound-force (lbf) sea level thrust Hadley liquid rocket engine, produced by Colorado-based Ursa Major Technologies . By using liquid propulsion, the single-stage X-60A retains the performance of traditional solid rocket booster engines while permitting flexibility, from high-altitude microgravity – up to 300 kilometers with 7 minutes of microgravity – to suppressed, high-Mach suborbital trajectories for high dynamic pressure environments for captive carry and free-flyer hypersonic experiments.

On January 8, 2018, Generation Orbit completed an inert captive carry flight test under a public-private partnership with NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center on the agency’s Gulfstream C-20A. (Image source: Generation Orbit)

The system is designed to mature technologies including scramjet propulsion, high temperature materials, and autonomous control by providing affordable and regular access to high dynamic pressure flight conditions between Mach 5 – the beginning of the hypersonic flight envelope – and Mach 8.

The vehicle was successfully hot fire tested at the Cecil Spaceport at the Jacksonville International Airport in Florida earlier this past June. The hot fire test validated integration of propellant tanks, valves, pressurization system, and flight controls and demonstrated the throttling capabilities of the system necessary to meet the thrust levels for Mach 6 cruise at 80,000 to 90,000 feet.

The first flight of X-60A is planned for late 2019.

“The X-60A is like a flying wind tunnel to capture data that complements our current ground test capability,” says Col. Colin Tucker, Military Deputy, office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology, and Engineering. “We’ve long needed this type of test vehicle to better understand how materials and other technologies behave while flying at more than five times the speed of sound. It enables faster development of both our current hypersonic weapon rapid prototypes and evolving future systems.”

The X-60A offers both integrated and recoverable payload modules, similar to traditional sounding rockets and a traditional deployable space launch vehicle fairing and separation system. Payload masses range from 30 to 200 pounds for high altitude microgravity research trajectories and up to 700 pounds for hypersonic flight test trajectories. (Image source: Generation Orbit)

According to Generation Orbit, while advances in computational methods and ground test facilities have matured technologies like scramjet engines; light-weight, high-temperature composite structures; and autonomous flight controls, flight research and testing is still the key linchpin in transitioning these technologies to operational systems. 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.

This is the first USAF Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program to receive an experimental “X” designation. It also comes after developments in Russia’s hypersonic missile test program earlier this year.

Japan has also recently announced the development of its own hypersonic missile.

However, Generation Orbit’s profile for the GOLauncher1 includes capabilities high-altitude planetary and climate science.

By utilizing new space commercial development, licensing, and operations practices, Generation Orbit’s hypersonic vehicle may provide the USAF, United States government agencies, and suborbital research communities with a platform to more rapidly mature technologies.

William Kucinski  is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include 'literally anything that has to do with space,' past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology. And also sportscars.

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