PARIS — Onera, which bills itself as the French aerospace lab, is exploring the engine technology to fly a missile at Mach 8 and beyond, as France seeks a new-generation hypersonic system to replace its current stock of supersonic nuclear-tipped airborne weapons.
"The new generation is here," said an Onera research engineer, who declined to be identified. The engineer stood next to an engine test bench at the center’s facilities at Palaiseau, just outside the capital. The test bench is the more recent of two which have been were used for work on the airborne missile for a nuclear warhead.
"The new generation is typically further, higher, faster. Faster is up to eight times the speed of sound, or Mach 8. That's what we're aiming for," he said.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a high-level conference last November that Nov. 20: "The studies for the successor to the ASMP-A [Air-Sol Moyenne Portée-Amelioré] missile, dubbed ASN4G, have already begun." ASN4G refers to air-sol nucléaire fourth-generation.
In 1993 Onera, under the Prepha project, built the test bench motor for experiments for a reusable space launcher some 60 meters long and weighing around 500 tons. The Direction Générale de l'Armement procurement office funded the Prepha project, which sets the varying air and temperature conditions for the concept engine. The test bench seeks to replicate the hypersonic missile flying from Mach 6 to 8.
The concept engine would burn just one fuel, liquid hydrogen, to leave the atmosphere rather than liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen and solid propellant as carried on the present Ariane five rocket. A single fuel would save weight, avoiding two fuel tanks and the huge solid boosters.
"This is very upstream research, but indispensable for preparing for the future," said the engineer. It will take some decades to produce a strategic military weapon or a commercial space launcher with a hypersonic speed.
With a longer, flatter tube than an older test bench next door, the new test bench motor has 200 sensor pressure pads, 20 heat sensors and there is a plan to add windows on the tube.
"The US is naturally ahead in the hypersonic work, but France is not far behind," he said.
Airbus has a patent for a three-fuel technology that would fly a hypersonic airliner from Paris to Tokyo in just under three hours, Reuters has reported. Airbus said the group and its division takes out hundreds of patents to protect copyright but not all the patents lead to fully realized technology or product.
In the marketplace, US company SpaceX is working on its Falcon reusable commercial launchers to send cargo to the International Space Station and place satellites into orbit.
In the test bench next door, Onera and European missile maker MBDA are working on an upgrade for the ASMP-A, which entered service in 2009.
Onera said on Oct. 2 that the center and the French space agency, Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, had agreed to a joint study for a first-stage reusable launcher and look for technology for recovery, return and maintenance. The study will look at a recovery of the first-stage launcher, and simulation based on air and temperature data.
In another part of the center, Blade, a 3D battle lab simulator, allows testing of concepts for missiles, drones, platforms, radar, optic sensors and electromagnetic systems.
These are highly visual experiences but they are not video games, said research engineer Raphaël Cuisinier. Different scenarios can be run. One of the concepts is based on Mars, an attack missile launched against an enemy surface-to-air missile battery, comprising detection and targeting radars, command post, and missile launchers.
The simulation runs complex scenarios such as one showing a future concept of an unmanned combat aerial vehicle and a Rafale, cooperating in an attack mission, with an enemy interception of the former while the latter hits its target on the enemy base.
Such simulation allows working on trade-offs between stealth and speed variables. The researchers can see the "hypothetical," Cuisinier said.
"We can see whether the missile should be more stealthy, more maneuverable, what speed, what altitude, we can play on the compromise and play them out on the simulator."
Onera last November requested €218 million (US $248.8 million) of state funding to modernize its wind tunnels at Modane and Fauga Mauzac, southeast France. One of the wind tunnels was used to experiment on the Rafale fighter launching an Exocet missile.
Onera in September hit French headlines following a report from the Cour des Comptes, the national audit office, which criticized the center for weak governance and lack of strategy, notwithstanding the quality of the research.
Work from the research center has found its way onto the Neuron technology demonstrator for a combat drone, the Armement Air-Sol Modulaire powered smart bomb, the Spectra electronic warfare system and M88 jet engine.
The center is also working on the Future Combat Air System-Development Program, an Anglo-French study for a combat drone, and Graves surveillance radar, which tracks satellites in space.
State funding to Onera fell to €96 million in 2014 from €126 million in 2008, with the Defense Ministry accounting for €122 million of the latter, according to an Onera presentation. That reflects funding cuts from the DGA and the Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civil, the civil aviation office. The latter withheld funding from 2011 to 2014, but . The DGAC more recently decided to commit €7 million over five years to fund three research projects.