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The Pursuit of Hypervelocities: A Review of Two-Stage Light Gas Gun Aeroballistic Ranges


  • Jacob A Rogers Texas A&M University
  • Nathaniel T Bass Texas A&M University
  • Mikayla L Wiest Texas A&M University
  • Zach Wantz Physics Applications, Inc.
  • Justin W Wilkerson Texas A&M University
  • Thomas E Lacy Jr Texas A&M University



two-stage light gas gun (2SLGG), aeroballistic range, hypervelocity impact, hypersonics, ballistics, terminal ballistics, high-speed imaging, flash X-ray imaging, photon doppler velocimetry (PDV), planar impacts, aerothermophysics, hypervelocity launchers, nuclear/pellet injection


The ongoing pursuit of space and hypersonic flight continues to expose critical gaps in the understanding of material behavior under hypervelocity impact (HVI) and hypersonic flow conditions. Such limitations pose serious risks for aerospace vehicles, spacecraft, hardened structures, defensive systems, etc. Consequently, the development of materials and systems that can endure HVIs and hypersonic flight is a major obstacle in the quest for sustainable space exploration, reusable air-breathing hypersonic vehicles, and enduring protective structures. HVIs (>3.0 km/s) can induce severe material deformation, erosion, fracturing, fragmentation, melting, vaporization, and sublimation. At the same time, hypersonic (>Mach 5) vehicles may be subjected to intense thermal and mechanical loads. Addressing these grand challenges requires a multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach, combining well-designed experiments with physics-based analytical and numerical modeling. Studying material behavior under HVIs and hypersonic conditions has been facilitated by two-stage light gas gun (2SLGG) aeroballistic ranges for almost seven decades. This current study surveys over 90 2SLGG aeroballistic ranges operational since 1990 to assess global launch and experimental capabilities. The 2SLGG's origins and research applications are explored, highlighting its significance in various fields, including shock physics, planetary science/defense, military defense, nuclear physics, hypersonic vehicle survivability and performance, and spacecraft micro-meteoroid/orbital debris protection. A summary of relevant HVI phenomena is presented to underscore the importance of 2SLGGs and to elucidate similarities and differences among various 2SLGG aeroballistic ranges and their supporting methods/tools. The 2SLGG's working principles are explained, and configurations and operations are compared. Modifications resulting in "three-stage light gas guns" are briefly mentioned for completeness. The full range of current 2SLGG performance capabilities is assessed with impact kinetic energies ranging from ~10 joules to nearly 100 megajoules, and the facility survey results are used to explain the variations in aeroballistic range tankage, experiment types, research applications, and diagnostic systems. Finally, an overview of 2SLGG performance prediction methods is provided, featuring notable empirical, analytical, and numerical approaches.


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2023-08-19 — Updated on 2023-10-23


Version justification

Minor edits and revisions