(Image: DARPA, public domain)
(DARPA has lost track of its Falcon HTV-2 experimental spaceplane over the Pacific Ocean. Has it suffered the same fate as last year’s ill-fated mission? What follows is a background article on the programme and real time updates as the article is being written.)
At the precise moment this article is being written, the DARPA Hypersonic Test Vehicle (HTV-2) – the fastest military aircraft ever built – is two minutes away from launch, as tweeted via @DARPA_News, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Known as the Falcon project, the spaceplane would be able to travel from London to Sydney in less than an hour while withstanding temperatures greater than 2000 degrees – hotter than the melting point of steel, the Guardian reports.
The unmanned Falcon (Force Application and Launch from Continental United States) is a joint programme of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force. The project aims to develop a hypersonic system that can reach any point on the globe in less than an hour – and potentially deliver weapons.
The HTV-2 is designed to be launched into the upper atmosphere on the back of an expendable Minotaur IV rocket (separation occurred seven minutes ago at time of writing, and as of three minutes ago the spaceplane entered the glide phase). At this point, engineers will guide the Falcon HTV-2 on its 13,000 mph (20 times the speed of sound) flight over the Pacific.
(Image: U.S. Federal Government, public domain)
Today’s test flight of the Falcon HTV-2 – which is a hypersonic glider – will also test the carbon composite materials tasked with ensuring the craft can withstand the extreme temperatures of hypersonic flight. Design and flight pattern alterations have taken place since last year, when the first HTV-2 encountered a problem and was ordered by its onboard computer to ditch into the ocean for safety reasons.
(Image: NASA, public domain)
Despite this incredible technology, the U.S. government has been experimenting with spaceplanes concepts for decades (like the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar, above), and the somewhat shadowy Falcon can be seen as the pinnacle of ongoing research. Another classified vehicle, known as the X-41 Common Aero Vehicle (CAV) is also reportedly associated with the programme.
As of three minutes ago, DARPA tweeted: “Range assets have lost telemetery with #HTV2. More to follow.”
One hour later (5:23pm BST) there have been no new updates – problems?
Approx 5:27pm BST: “Downrange assets did not reacquire tracking or telemetry. #HTV2 has an autonomous flight termination capability. More to follow.” Has the second test flight gone the same way as the first HTV-2?
Approx 5:55pm BST: Associated Press reports contact lost and DARPA yet to respond to an email requesting further information.
6:10pm BST: Still no further updates…