US hypersonic glider flunks first test flight

Apr 28, 2010
The DARPA Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2. Image credit: DARPA

US military scientists lost contact with a hypersonic glider nine minutes into its inaugural test flight last week, a defense research agency said on Tuesday.

The unmanned Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) is designed to fly through the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere at speeds of up to Mach 20, providing the US military with a possible platform for striking targets anywhere on the planet with conventional weapons.

The HTV-2 was launched last week aboard a Minotaur IV rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The test flight called for a 30-minute mission in which the vehicle would glide at high speed before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, north of a US military test site at the Kwajalein Atoll.

The glider separated from the booster but soon after the signal vanished, a spokeswoman said.

"Preliminary review of data indicates the HTV-2 achieved controlled flight within the atmosphere at over Mach 20. Then contact with HTV-2 was lost," Johanna Spangenberg Jones, a spokeswoman for DARPA, told AFP.

"This was our first flight (all others were done in wind tunnels and simulations) so although of course we would like to have everything go perfectly, we still gathered data and can use findings for the next flight, scheduled currently for early 2011," she said in an email.

The test flight was supposed to cover a total of 4,100 nautical miles (7,600 kilometers) from lift-off and scientists had hoped to conduct some limited maneuvers, with the HTV-2 banking and eventually diving for its splash down.

US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin builds the hypersonic glider, which the military calls "revolutionary."

The hypersonic program appears to fit in with US plans to develop a way of hitting distant targets with conventional weapons within an hour, dubbed "prompt global strike."

According to a Pentagon fact sheet for the vehicle, "the US military seeks the capability to respond, with little or no advanced warning, to threats to our national security anywhere around the globe."

A hypersonic plane could substitute for a ballistic missile armed with a conventional warhead, as other countries might suspect the missile represented a nuclear attack.

"Aside from its speed, another advantage is that it would not be mistaken by Russia or China for a nuclear launch," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute who has done consultant work for .

The US Air Force has also looked at hypersonic vehicles for intelligence-gathering if spy satellites in low orbit were attacked, he said.

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User comments : 20

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A_Paradox
5 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2010
how much did it cost?
NotAsleep
5 / 5 (6) Apr 28, 2010
The cost is likely classified.

Saying Russia and China wouldn't confuse this with a nuke launch is meant to mean "China and Russia won't realize this aircraft has been launched". If this can carry conventional munitions, there's no real reason it won't be able to carry nuclear munitions.

It's like saying we have a B-52 circling Beijing, which is OK since it's not an ICBM
panorama
4.8 / 5 (4) Apr 28, 2010
Failure is the precursor of success...
powerup1
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2010
How did it "flunk"? This is a test program to gather information and research the system. The headline for this article is inane.
Mercury_01
2.2 / 5 (5) Apr 28, 2010
How did it "flunk"? This is a test program to gather information and research the system. The headline for this article is inane.

They lost the signal, and the craft; It disintegrated. Id say that's a pretty resounding flunk, right?
CouchP
4 / 5 (5) Apr 28, 2010
How did it "flunk"? This is a test program to gather information and research the system. The headline for this article is inane.

They lost the signal, and the craft; It disintegrated. Id say that's a pretty resounding flunk, right?


powerup1's point is that these missions are fact finding and any facts found means success.
LuckyBrandon
3 / 5 (5) Apr 28, 2010
Did they mention the alititude? If so, I missed it...
But, basically, they are trying to build a hypersonic bomber that runs at around 16,000 mph...thats just crazy...and cool...
Temple
5 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2010
Considering the aircraft failed to meet the majority of the objectives of the test flight, I'd call that 'flunking'.

The test was successful, but the glider failed.
DesertEagleMan
5 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2010
Maybe they should have got Boeing to build it, then it would have flown.
trekgeek1
4.5 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2010
I think it depends on exactly what they were testing. The communications array may have been a standard off the shelf lockheed system that failed. The brief time the craft flew could have been a success for the airframe and propulsion systems. Only one piece of the craft failed, the rest could have worked perfectly for a brief time.
Chef
4 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2010
The article doesn't specify what happened to the craft. It says that it achieved controlled flight, then lost contact, but not that it broke up.
eric_in_chicago
3 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2010
why do they call it a "glider" if it must have an advanced propulsion system?
abhishekbt
3 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2010
@Chef - Spot on!

I was wondering the same.
They don't mention what happened to it. I mean if they lost control did it still land safely?

What would have happened if it went and smashed into the Empire State Building? At that speed, it's as good as an asteriod collision!
abhishekbt
1 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2010
On second thought though, they stressed multiple times in the article that this vehicle is more like an aircraft and less like a missile.

This leads me to believe that it was 'manned'. They lost commnunication but the pilot was sill able to land it safely. That would explain the lack of a crash.
Vlasev
5 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2010
@abhishekbt: the column says explicitly "The unmanned Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2..."
abhishekbt
3 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2010
Oops! My Bad. Missed that out.
So, the question is, did it still splash as planned or...?
ETKJR
4 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2010
What would have happened if it went and smashed into the Empire State Building? At that speed, it's as good as an asteriod collision!

WELL... At full Mach 20 we are talking about approx 12,000 miles per hr = 3.3 miles per second. Meteoric speeds for asteroids cometary fragments etc. entering the earths atmosphere range from 7 to 45 miles per second. Since the vehicle is NOT solid but relatively frangible - and smallish - it would be "destructive" on impact but not catastrophic.

Also, by the time it reaches the earth surface it will have slowed significantly from the initial re-entry speed.

Given the challenges and the step-out nature of the aerothermal factors, this test - lasting nine minutes - was a step forward. Not an unbridled success - BUT they are truly pushing the envelope's edge, and they will have learned something about that edge. Knowledge will lead to a better understanding and design.

The next test may be less ambitious - say reentry at mach 15 instead of mach 20.
k_m
2.3 / 5 (3) May 02, 2010
Let's pretend for a minute the engineers forgot about the ionization of the atmosphere that occurs at high-speeds, ie during reentry for instance, which blocks radio signals.... :)
hard2grep
1 / 5 (1) May 02, 2010
At the speed that this craft was going, I wonder if any of the recovery crew brought butter and salt.
Skepticus
1 / 5 (1) May 18, 2010
Let's pretend for a minute the engineers forgot about the ionization of the atmosphere that occurs at high-speeds, ie during reentry for instance, which blocks radio signals.... :)


I believe I have read somewhere that, in the case of an orbital reentry, the craft movement created a cone-shaped shell of ionized air though the atmosphere, so theoretically it can transmit and receive from satellites from the tail end through the aforementioned cone.