An unmanned hypersonic glider developed for U.S. defense research into super-fast global strike capability was launched atop a rocket early Thursday but contact was lost after the experimental craft began flying on its own, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said.
The problem occurred during the critical point of transition to aerodynamic flight, DARPA said in a statement that described the mission as an attempt to fly the fastest aircraft ever built.
“More than nine minutes of data was collected before an anomaly caused loss of signal,” it said. “Initial indications are that the aircraft impacted the Pacific Ocean along the planned flight path.”
The 7:45 a.m. launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, 130 miles (200 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, was the second of two planned flights of a Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2. Contact was also lost during the first mission.
Shaped like the tip of a spear, the small craft is part of a U.S. military initiative to develop technology to respond to threats at 20 times the speed of sound or greater, reaching any part of the globe in an hour.
The HTV-2 is designed to be launched to the edge of space, separate from its booster and maneuver through the atmosphere at 13,000 mph (21,000 kph) before intentionally crashing into the ocean.
Defense analyst John Pike of Globalsecurity.org wasn’t surprised with the latest failure because the hypersonic test flight program is still in its infancy.
“At this early stage of the game, if they did not experience failures, it’s because they’re not trying very hard,” he said.
Pike said it’s possible for engineers to still glean useful information about what worked and what didn’t, despite the flight ending prematurely. The key is to analyze what happened in the final five seconds before contact was lost.