An unmanned hypersonic aircraft made by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) crashed into the Pacific Ocean after reaching about 20 times the speed of sound and flying for more than nine minutes, a Pentagon agency said.
The experimental Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, or HTV-2, lifted off today in a Minotaur IV rocket made by Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB) at 7:45 a.m. local time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, according the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is funding the program and overseeing the tests. The agency announced the launch and mission updates on Twitter.
The arrowhead-shaped aircraft soared to the edge of space, separated from the booster and was “on track” to enter its glide phase, during which it would reach speeds of Mach 20, or about 13,000 miles per hour, before diving into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Kwajalein Atoll, according to the agency.
Around 8:22 local time, the agency reported engineers “lost telemetry” with the aircraft.
In a statement released later in the day, the agency said the aircraft successfully made the transition to Mach 20 aerodynamic flight and “more than nine minutes of data was collected before an anomaly caused loss of signal.”
Today’s mission was the aircraft’s second and final planned test flight. The first attempt on April 22, 2010, also ended nine minutes into the flight when the on-board computer detected a glitch and forced a splashdown. Data from the maiden voyage indicated the craft reached speeds of between Mach 17 and Mach 22.
“We do not yet know how to achieve the desired control during the aerodynamic phase of flight,” Air Force Major Chris Schulz, the program manager, said in the statement. “It’s vexing; I’m confident there is a solution. We have to find it.”
The project began in 2003 and cost $320 million, Eric Mazzacone, a spokesman for Darpa, said in an e-mail. The goal is to develop technology that might deliver a non-nuclear warhead anywhere in the world within an hour.
Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association in Washington, said the technology is unconstrained by the New Start, a nuclear arms reduction agreement signed last year by U.S. and Russia, and isn’t likely to be confused with a nuclear weapon because its trajectory is unlike the bell-shaped curve of a ballistic missile.
“Most people perceive this to be a niche capability,” he said in a telephone interview. “You’re not going to build more than a dozen or two of these things.”
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