China is developing a heat-seeking hypersonic weapon that will be able to hit a moving car at five times the speed of sound, according to scientists involved in the project. The research team, led by Yang Xiaogang from the PLA Rocket Force University of Engineering in Xian, said “important progress” had been made towards solving the main problem of how to pinpoint a moving target at extreme speeds. Yang and his colleagues from the university’s College of Missile Engineering have been given a deadline of 2025 to come up with solutions to the seemingly intractable challenges of hypersonic technology. Because a superfast missile can travel long distances in a split second, a tiny error in the positioning and guidance system can lead to a huge miss, they explained in a paper published in Chinese peer-reviewed journal Infrared and Laser Engineering. Over distance, the infrared signature of a small moving target “constitutes just a few pixels without detailed information such as shape, texture and structure”, making identification and tracking “extremely difficult”, they said. The heat sensor needs an extremely cold environment, but the surface temperature of the missile can reach several thousand degrees Celsius, producing a huge amount of background noise. But, with the new heat-seeking technology, the Chinese military will be able to eliminate high-value targets from long distances with unprecedented speed, to “significantly expand the scope of application of hypersonic weapons in a regional war”, said Yang in the paper, part of a series published by the journal. Hypersonic weapons were initially developed to penetrate air defence systems and hit fixed targets on the ground. It was generally believed that limited manoeuvrability at such high velocity would make hitting a moving target impossible. In recent years, China has shown an increasing capability against mobile targets, including a model aircraft carrier set up on rails at a firing range in the Gobi desert. But a warship is relatively easy to track, with its size and predictable movement against a relatively stable background. The problem is more complex on a street, where many similar vehicles are likely to be present. A car can turn at any time as it travels across a landscape which can also vary significantly, increasing the calculation burden for on-board computers. What are hypersonic weapons, and why is there a race to develop them? According to Yang, his team has come up with a new identification and tracking method as it homes in on the target. A traditional heat-seeker analyses the images produced by infrared sensors frame by frame. But at Mach 5 or faster, the difference between two adjacent frames can be huge, making it difficult for the computer to find a consistent pattern, especially when the target is small and moving. The new hypersonic missile does not take a new image for granted, the paper said. Instead, it will use the data collected by motion sensors to adjust every pixel, so that most elements in the new image will remain consistent with those in earlier shots in terms of viewing angle, lighting or size. This calibration technology is complex, but produces a considerably clearer, more stable background that makes the target stand out sharply, the team said. The hypersonic heat-seeker would also be able to go after a target in the air, according to a separate paper in the series by Qin Hanlin from the school of optoelectronic engineering in Xidian University. Qin and his team demonstrated a technology that would allow a hypersonic ground-to-air missile to hit a target as small as a commercial drone. The missile could distinguish the drone hanging low over buildings or trees with nearly 90 per cent accuracy, they said. A number of hardware breakthroughs have made these achievements possible, according to the scientists, including improvements in sensor technology that mean heat signals can be detected over distance as a unique wave form, producing clear images at hypersonic speeds. The Chinese scientists also found a low-cost replacement for the precious materials, including diamonds, used for the window of the infrared detector so that it can survive the harsh environment. AI can replace humans in design of hypersonic weapons: Chinese study Glass made of zinc sulphide, at a fraction of the cost, also provides a crystal-clear view, they said. The Chinese military increasingly believes hypersonic weapons will change the nature of battle and is investing heavily to achieve an edge in the technology. According to some recent studies by PLA researchers, senior military commanders could find themselves directly exposed – even if they were more than 1,000km (621 miles) behind the front line and protected by multiple layers of air defence systems. Expensive military platforms such as aircraft carriers and stealth warplanes would also lose their advantage, with little defence against hypersonic missiles able to manoeuvre and aim with precision. The PLA’s hypersonic programme employs about 3,000 scientists – 50 per cent more than those working on traditional weapons, according to a study published in January by Chinese peer-reviewed journal Tactical Missile Technology. The average contribution to the increase of China’s military strength by a researcher in a hypersonic programme was estimated to be twice as high as a researcher working on aircraft or warships, the study found.