GUY RAZ, HOST:
Imagine flying from L.A. to New York in about 30 minutes. That's roughly eight times the speed of sound. And yesterday, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command managed to launch a missile that flew at that speed. The test missile was sent from Hawaii to hit a site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific about 2,400 miles away, and within a half hour, the missile struck its target. And the military is hoping to speed it up even more.
Wired magazine editor Noah Shachtman blogs about military technology at the Danger Room and he joins me now.
And, Noah, can you explain, how were they able to reach those kinds of speeds?
NOAH SHACHTMAN: Basically, the reason they're able to reach those kind of speeds is because the thing is on the back of a rocket that shoots up into space, and once it gets above the atmosphere it detaches and comes screaming back down to the earth at many, many, many times the speed of sound. And then it kind of levels out and starts flying through the atmosphere like a glider, you know, just like when the space shuttle comes back down to earth. It's the same thing, but just over a much, much longer distance.
RAZ: So this was a pretty big breakthrough.
SHACHTMAN: Yeah. This is significant. Look, flying that fast, flying at, like, mach seven or mach eight, that many times the speed of sound, the physics of it, the fluid dynamics are totally different than flying at a couple hundred miles an hour or even breaking the sound barrier.
You can't even test this stuff in a wind tunnel. We don't have wind tunnels that move that fast, so the only way to do it is to fire off these test missiles and this one worked and so we're going to learn a lot about what it means to travel that fast.
RAZ: So describe what it looks like, actually, what this missile looks like.
SHACHTMAN: It sort of looks like a giant lawn dart made of aluminum and carbon and a whole bunch of other metals put together into an alloy.
RAZ: Now, here's a question, Noah. The U.S. can already deliver a weapon anywhere in the world pretty quickly, right? Using ICBMs or submarines, so what's the advantage of these missiles?
SHACHTMAN: Right. So the Pentagon, for about the last five or six years, has had a plan circulating called Prompt Global Strike and the goal is to strike any target in the world in an hour or less. So, like, the idea would be, if we all the sudden had some intelligence that al-Qaida, you know, had a nuclear weapon and was about to launch it or that, you know, the Iranians were about to launch something and you couldn't hit them in time with a plane or a submarine-launched missile, that you would send this thing out.
So we're able to do that technically. All we have to do is reconfigure our existing arsenal of nuclear missiles, but while it's technically pretty easy, geopolitically it's awful because that conventional missile looks and flies almost exactly like a nuclear missile. And so we would launch one of these things and, basically, to the Russians or the Chinese, it would look like the start of World War III. So that's why Congress, a couple of years ago, basically told the Pentagon to knock it off.
RAZ: So, in theory, the technology already exists? I mean, you could do that with an ICBM. You would just send it up and within an hour you could strike anywhere in the world?
SHACHTMAN: Right. The technology exists to strike anywhere in the world in an hour. The small, teeny, tiny, itty-bitty problem is it could cause nuclear Armageddon.
RAZ: Right. Noah, thanks.
SHACHTMAN: No problem.
RAZ: That's Noah Shachtman. He's an editor for Wired magazine. He blogs about military technology at the Danger Room. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.