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The term hypervelocity usually refers to a very high velocity
In physics, velocity is speed in a given direction. Speed describes only how fast an object is moving, whereas velocity gives both the speed and direction of the object's motion. To have a constant velocity, an object must have a constant speed and motion in a constant direction. Constant ...

, approximately over 3,000 meters per second
Metre per second
Metre per second is an SI derived unit of both speed and velocity , defined by distance in metres divided by time in seconds....

 (6,700 mph, 11,000 km/h, 10,000 ft/s, or Mach
Mach number
Mach number is the speed of an object moving through air, or any other fluid substance, divided by the speed of sound as it is in that substance for its particular physical conditions, including those of temperature and pressure...

 8.8). In particular, it refers to velocities so high that the strength of materials upon impact is very small compared to inertia
Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion. It is proportional to an object's mass. The principle of inertia is one of the fundamental principles of classical physics which are used to...

l stresses. Thus, even metal
A metal , is an element, compound, or alloy that is a good conductor of both electricity and heat. Metals are usually malleable and shiny, that is they reflect most of incident light...

s behave like fluid
In physics, a fluid is a substance that continually deforms under an applied shear stress. Fluids are a subset of the phases of matter and include liquids, gases, plasmas and, to some extent, plastic solids....

s under hypervelocity impact. Extreme hypervelocity results in vaporization of the impactor
Impact force
In mechanics, an impact is a high force or shock applied over a short time period when two or more bodies collide. Such a force or acceleration usually has a greater effect than a lower force applied over a proportionally longer time period of time...

 and target. For structural metals, hypervelocity is generally considered to be over 2,500 m/s (5,600 mph, 9,000 km/h, 8,200 ft/s, or Mach 7.3). Meteorite
A meteorite is a natural object originating in outer space that survives impact with the Earth's surface. Meteorites can be big or small. Most meteorites derive from small astronomical objects called meteoroids, but they are also sometimes produced by impacts of asteroids...

Impact crater
In the broadest sense, the term impact crater can be applied to any depression, natural or manmade, resulting from the high velocity impact of a projectile with a larger body...

s are also examples of hypervelocity impacts.

Hypervelocity tends to refer to velocities in the range of a few kilometers per second
The second is a unit of measurement of time, and is the International System of Units base unit of time. It may be measured using a clock....

 to some tens of kilometers per second. It is especially relevant to the field of space exploration
Space exploration
Space exploration is the use of space technology to explore outer space. Physical exploration of space is conducted both by human spaceflights and by robotic spacecraft....

 and military use of space, where hypervelocity impacts (e.g. by space debris
Space debris
Space debris, also known as orbital debris, space junk, and space waste, is the collection of objects in orbit around Earth that were created by humans but no longer serve any useful purpose. These objects consist of everything from spent rocket stages and defunct satellites to erosion, explosion...

 or an attacking projectile
A projectile is any object projected into space by the exertion of a force. Although a thrown baseball is technically a projectile too, the term more commonly refers to a weapon....

) can result in anything from minor component degradation to the complete destruction of a spacecraft
A spacecraft or spaceship is a craft or machine designed for spaceflight. Spacecraft are used for a variety of purposes, including communications, earth observation, meteorology, navigation, planetary exploration and transportation of humans and cargo....

 or missile. The impactor, as well as the surface it hits, can undergo temporary liquefaction
Liquefaction may refer to:* Liquefaction, the general process of becoming liquid* Soil liquefaction, the process by which sediments become suspended* Liquefaction of gases in physics, chemistry, and thermal engineering* Liquefactive necrosis in pathology...

. The impact process can generate plasma
Plasma (physics)
In physics and chemistry, plasma is a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. Heating a gas may ionize its molecules or atoms , thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions...

 discharges, which can interfere with spacecraft electronics.

Hypervelocity usually occurs during meteor shower
Meteor shower
A meteor shower is a celestial event in which a number of meteors are observed to radiate from one point in the night sky. These meteors are caused by streams of cosmic debris called meteoroids entering Earth's atmosphere at extremely high speeds on parallel trajectories. Most meteors are smaller...

s and deep space reentries, as carried out during the Zond
Zond program
Zond was the name given to two distinct series of Soviet unmanned space program undertaken from 1964 to 1970. The first series based on 3MV planetary probe was intended to gather information about nearby planets...

, Apollo
Project Apollo
The Apollo program was the spaceflight effort carried out by the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration , that landed the first humans on Earth's Moon. Conceived during the Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Apollo began in earnest after President John F...

 and Luna
Luna programme
The Luna programme , occasionally called Lunik or Lunnik, was a series of robotic spacecraft missions sent to the Moon by the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1976. Fifteen were successful, each designed as either an orbiter or lander, and accomplished many firsts in space exploration...

 programs. Given the intrinsic unpredictability of the timing and trajectories of meteors, space capsules are prime data gathering opportunities for the study of thermal protection materials at hypervelocity (in this context, hypervelocity is defined as greater than escape velocity
Escape velocity
In physics, escape velocity is the speed at which the kinetic energy plus the gravitational potential energy of an object is zero gravitational potential energy is negative since gravity is an attractive force and the potential is defined to be zero at infinity...

). Given the rarity of such observation opportunities since the 1970s, the Genesis
Genesis (spacecraft)
The Genesis spacecraft was a NASA sample return probe which collected a sample of solar wind and returned it to Earth for analysis. It was the first NASA sample return mission to return material since the Apollo Program, and the first to return material from beyond the orbit of the Moon...

 and the recent Stardust
Stardust (spacecraft)
Stardust is a 300-kilogram robotic space probe launched by NASA on February 7, 1999 to study the asteroid 5535 Annefrank and collect samples from the coma of comet Wild 2. The primary mission was completed January 15, 2006, when the sample return capsule returned to Earth...

 Sample Return Capsule (SRC) reentries as well as the recent Hayabusa
was an unmanned spacecraft developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to return a sample of material from a small near-Earth asteroid named 25143 Itokawa to Earth for further analysis....

 SRC reentry have spawned observation campaigns, most notably at NASA Ames Research Center
NASA Ames Research Center
The Ames Research Center , is one of the United States of America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration 10 major field centers.The centre is located in Moffett Field in California's Silicon Valley, near the high-tech companies, entrepreneurial ventures, universities, and other...


Hypervelocity collision
A collision is an isolated event which two or more moving bodies exert forces on each other for a relatively short time.Although the most common colloquial use of the word "collision" refers to accidents in which two or more objects collide, the scientific use of the word "collision" implies...

s can be studied by examining the results of naturally-occurring collisions (between micrometeorites
A micrometeoroid is a tiny meteoroid; a small particle of rock in space, usually weighing less than a gram. A micrometeor or micrometeorite is such a particle that enters the Earth's atmosphere or falls to Earth.-Scientific interest:...

 and spacecraft, or between meteorites and planetary bodies), or they may be performed in laboratories. Currently the primary tool for laboratory experiments is a light gas gun
Light gas gun
The light-gas gun is an apparatus for physics experiments, a highly specialized gun designed to generate very high velocities. It is usually used to study high speed impact phenomena , such as the formation of impact craters by meteorites or the erosion of materials by micrometeoroids...

, but some experiments have used linear motor
Linear motor
A linear motor is an electric motor that has had its stator and rotor "unrolled" so that instead of producing a torque it produces a linear force along its length...

s to accelerate projectiles to hypervelocity.

The properties of metals under hypervelocity have been integrated with weapons, such as explosively formed penetrator
Explosively Formed Penetrator
An explosively formed penetrator , also known as an explosively formed projectile, a self-forging warhead, or a self-forging fragment, is a special type of shaped charge designed to penetrate armour effectively at standoff distances...

. The vaporization upon impact and liquefaction of surfaces allow metal projectiles formed under hypervelocity forces to penetrate vehicle armor better than conventional bullets.

The White Sands Test Facility
White Sands Test Facility
White Sands Test Facility is a U.S. government rocket engine test facility and a resource for testing and evaluating potentially hazardous materials, space flight components, and rocket propulsion systems. NASA established WSTF on the White Sands Missile Range in 1963...

 is a NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation's civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research...

 facility that performs, among other tests, hypervelocity impact experiments to study the effect of micrometeoroid
A micrometeoroid is a tiny meteoroid; a small particle of rock in space, usually weighing less than a gram. A micrometeor or micrometeorite is such a particle that enters the Earth's atmosphere or falls to Earth.-Scientific interest:...

 and orbital debris impacts on spacecraft, so that improved protection measures can be taken for its space missions. The facility uses two-stage light gas gun
Light gas gun
The light-gas gun is an apparatus for physics experiments, a highly specialized gun designed to generate very high velocities. It is usually used to study high speed impact phenomena , such as the formation of impact craters by meteorites or the erosion of materials by micrometeoroids...

s to accelerate projectiles to extreme velocities.

Hypervelocity Reentry Events

Date Event Speed (km/s) Notes
8 September 2004 Genesis SRC 11.04 Crashed (drogue chute failure)
15 January 2006 Stardust SRC 12.79 Fastest man-made reentry on record
13 June 2010 Hayabusa SRC 12.2 Leading main Hayabusa spacecraft by 6,500 feet (destructive reentry)

See also

  • Hypervelocity star
  • Kinetic energy penetrator
    Kinetic energy penetrator
    A kinetic energy penetrator is a type of ammunition which, like a bullet, does not contain explosives and uses kinetic energy to penetrate the target....

  • Terminal velocity
    Terminal velocity
    In fluid dynamics an object is moving at its terminal velocity if its speed is constant due to the restraining force exerted by the fluid through which it is moving....

  • Hypersonic
    In aerodynamics, a hypersonic speed is one that is highly supersonic. Since the 1970s, the term has generally been assumed to refer to speeds of Mach 5 and above...