The Physics
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Speed of a Missile

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Bibliographic Entry Result
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Walkins, Steven. "High-Speed Missile Tester is Planned." Air Force Times, 56, 42 (20 March 1996): 24. "Air Force missile testers plan to build a $47 million track to propel warheads at speeds up to 10 times the speed of sound, or about 7,500 miles per hour" 3350 m/s
"Super Sonic Missile." Navy Times, 46, 27 (18 August 1997). "The Yakont missile can travel at speed of 2.5 times the speed of sound to targets 75 to 188 miles away." 860 m/s
Taylor, Michael J. H. Missiles of the World. Great Britain, 1980: 135 "Max. speed approx. Mach 4.5" 1500 m/s
Seffers, Beorfe I. "Hyper-speed anti-tank missiles studied for 2015." Army Times, 58 (13 October 1997): 37. "The new missile is expected to fly faster than 1.3 miles per second" 2100 m/s

The speed of a missile is determined by its method of propulsion. There are two primary types: rocket-powered and engine-powered. Rocket powered missiles can be broken down into liquid-propellant, solid propellant, electric, and nuclear rockets. This essay however will only deal with liquid and solid rocket propelled missiles.

Liquid propelled rockets consist of:

  1. one or more thrust chambers,
  2. one or more fuel tanks,
  3. a feed mechanism which forces fuel into the thrust chamber,
  4. a power supply to keep the feed mechanism running,
  5. valves and piping to channel the fuel,
  6. a structure to transmit the thrust, and
  7. control devices to initiate and control propellant flow.

Solid propelled missiles contain solid a propellant which is burned in a combustion chamber. The propellant charge (also know as the grain) also contains chemical elements which allow for the complete burning of the solid propellant. An ideal propulsion fuel generates a lot of thrust but is light weight.

Rockets operate on the principle of Newton Third Law -- for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction. The rocket is able to produce high pressure gases in the combustion chamber. This is directed out the exhaust nozzle at the back of missile with a large force. This produces an equal amount of thrust that pushes the missile forward.

Thousands of types of missiles exist for various purposes, they all travel at different speeds. Using modern day electromagnetic power, a missile can be launched at Mach 10 (ten time the speed of sound), this is equivalent to 3430 m/s (or 7,500 mph). This missile will be used for defense and may have a role similar to that of the Patriot missile. Planned for 2015 are high-speed missiles that will be used to take out enemy vehicles through sheer momentum. It is expected to fly at over 2100 m/s (3600 mph). These missiles are known as kinetic energy missiles. They are designed to take out tanks and other armored vehicles. In 1980 the fastest missile was made by a French company. The Super 530 can travel at Mach 4.5 or 1500 m/s. This was more than sufficient to take out the fastest fighter planes traveling at 2200 mph or 980 m/s. Slower missiles launched by rocket launcher supported by a man's shoulder only went 300 ft/s or 90 m/s.

Missiles travel at various speeds. Note though that a missile has to travel only faster than it target is able to move or to defend itself. In time, missiles will be faster, more precise, and will travel greater distances.

Sean Manning -- 1999