At some point in the next few weeks, a B-52H bomber will carry a missile high into the air and launch it at an unprecedented velocity toward its target, according to the U.S. Air Force. If everything goes according to plan, that missile will accelerate to more than five times the speed of sound before deploying a dummy second stage that will promptly “disintegrate” somewhere in the atmosphere.
The missile, known as AGM-183A, is supposed to be the first hypersonic weapon — or Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) — in the U.S. arsenal. It should move so quickly through the atmosphere — about 20 times the speed of sound — at such low altitudes that it’s impossible for enemy missile defense systems to shoot out of the air. And its speed means that it can be useful for destroying “high-value, time-sensitive targets,” the Air Force said in a statement.
Hypersonic missile designs, including this one, typically involve two stages.
First, a rocket accelerates the weapon to many times the speed of sound, while remaining at a much lower altitude than Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that arc high above the atmosphere before delivering their nuclear payloads.