After a 15-year hiatus, Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) is returning to flying sounding rockets. The centerpiece of the High Operational Tempo Sounding Rocket (HOT SHOT) program, the suborbital rocket launches are designed to cut the development time for new weapon systems by a third while lowering R&D costs.
With the United States working to modernize and expand its nuclear deterrent, developing warheads, missiles and their components by the US Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) takes a high priority. However, development testing is a long and expensive prospect taking as long as 15 years. In addition to being a budget burden, it can also be a real problem if the agency has to respond to a sudden national security emergency.
One bottleneck of testing is that there comes a time when components have to undergo actual flight conditions. While ground tests, simulations, and computer models all play a part, they is no substitute for the moment when prototypes need to face the unique combination of temperatures, pressures, and other other forces found during and after a missile launch.
According to SNL, this is usually done by the US Department of Defense, but these missile flights are scheduled long into the future and are very expensive with a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars, so the components must already be close to successful by the time they fly. Otherwise, there won't be the time or the money for any corrections.
To help speed things along, SNL's HOT SHOT uses simple, two-stage sounding rockets built from spare parts. In the nose cone of each rocket are racks to carry components or other experiments, so several tests involving everything from flight computers to structural brackets can be carried out at the same time. In addition, the data gathered helps to improve ground tests. During the flight, telemetry sends data back to the ground in real time.
"HOT SHOT fills a hole between ground testing and missile testing," says Olga Spahn, manager of the department at Sandia responsible for payload integration for the program. "It gives researchers the flexibility to develop technology and see how it handles a flight environment at a relatively low cost."
The first HOT SHOT flight was in May of this year from the SNL Kauai Test Facility in Hawaii, with four more scheduled for 2019. The first experiments were flown by Sandia and Kansas City National Security Campus, but Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Britain's Atomic Weapons Establishment are scheduled to participate in later launches. The hope is to fly several rockets each year, so that multiple versions of devices can be tested over time by researchers.
"We provide the payload integration and ride; they provide the experiments for the payload," says Spahn.
The video below shows the first HOT SHOT launch from Hawaii.
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