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The University of Central Florida is working on propulsion technology that can travel at least five times the speed of sound or greater as the U.S. chases China and Russia in developing the latest air defense technology.

The Department of Defense awarded UCF researchers $1.5 million to advance its hypersonic propulsion technology in the hopes of surpassing China, which successfully tested new hypersonic missiles last August, a feat the U.S. has yet to accomplish.

“Hypersonics are the new set of technology that everyone is interested in weaponizing,” said Tom Dolan, UCF associate professor at the School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs. “The concern is that hypersonics could represent a complete revolution of technology that changes everything but we don’t know for sure.”

China and the U.S. have a long-standing competitive relationship in economics, politics, and many other aspects, Dolan said.

“The ability to use space, so putting infrastructure in space, is definitely a part of that competition,” Dolan said. “Things like satellites which give the ability to communicate but also the ability to spy on each other.”

This competition between the two countries is paving the way to develop more infrastructure in space, leaving room for the possibility of shooting down satellites and getting a broader issue of potential militarization in space, Dolan said.

Russia fired a test missile targeting one of their own satellites on Nov. 15, causing crew members onboard the International Space Station to take cover due to debris.

“Shooting down satellites is a perfect example of that militarization of space,” Dolan said.

Hypersonic propulsion research also has the potential to create more efficient and faster travel to space thus lowering the cost and price of space tourism.

“You can get into orbit cheaper, you can travel to international continents more quickly and of course there are the defense applications which is why the DOD is sponsoring us,” said Daniel Rosato, UCF Ph.D. student working on the project. “A hypersonic-based weapons platform allows us to maintain our security when other countries such as Russia and China are also pursuing it aggressively as well.”

UCF’s three-year award is part of 18 other projects the DOD is funding to advance hypersonic research and build a workforce around it. Kareem Ahmed, an associate professor in UCF’s department of mechanical engineering and an expert in hypersonic propulsion engineering, is the lead researcher.

“I don’t feel pressure from the DOD. Instead, I feel more encouraged to have their support to advance this technology,” Ahmed said. “We have been working in this field for some time now so this grant will accelerate our findings.”

The project will test hypersonic reactions inside UCF’s unique hypersonic high-enthalpy reaction, or HyperREACT, facility which was in part created and designed by Rosato.

“The facility sounds like a rocket engine when we are using it,” Rosato said. “We have to wear noise-canceling headphones and go inside because it’s so loud.”

The HyperREACT facility and years of experience in hypersonic propulsion research are the reasons the DOD chose UCF to keep up in this field, Ahmed said.