The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) attempted to fly the fastest aircraft ever built on Thursday.
The test flight, the second of its kind, began with launch at 10:45 a.m. EDT from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.
The small unmanned aircraft, known as Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 (HTV-2), was launched aboard a Minotaur IV rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. The Minotaur successfully inserted the aircraft into the desired trajectory. Separation of the HTV-2 from the Minotaur was confirmed and the aircraft reached a speed of Mach 20 (over 15,000 miles per hour).
More than nine minutes of data was collected before an anomaly caused loss of signal, DARPA said in a press statement after the launch. Initial indications are that the aircraft fell into the Pacific Ocean.
“Here’s what we know,” said Air Force Maj. Chris Schulz, DARPA HTV-2 program manager. “We know how to boost the aircraft to near space. We know how to insert the aircraft into atmospheric hypersonic flight. We do not yet know how to achieve the desired control during the aerodynamic phase of flight. It’s vexing; I’m confident there is a solution. We have to find it.“
The HTV-2 is designed to fly anywhere in the world in less than 60 minutes. This capability requires an aircraft that can fly at 13,000 miles per hour, while experiencing temperatures in excess of 3,500 Fahrenheit.
“Prior to flight, the technical team completed the most sophisticated simulations and extensive wind tunnel tests possible. But these ground tests have not yielded the necessary knowledge. Filling the gaps in our understanding of hypersonic flight in this demanding regime requires that we be willing to fly,” said DARPA Director Regina Dugan. “In the April 2010 test, we obtained four times the amount of data previously available at these speeds. Today more than 20 air, land, sea and space data collection systems were operational. We’ll learn. We’ll try again. That’s what it takes.”
“DARPA has assembled a team of experts that will analyze the flight data collected during today’s test flight, expanding our technical understanding of this incredibly harsh flight regime,” explained Schulz. “As today’s flight indicates, high-Mach flight in the atmosphere is virtually uncharted territory.”
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