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Thursday
Aug112011

Hypersonic Flight: New York to Los Angeles in 12 Minutes?

Falcon HTV-2 (darpa.mil)(WASHINGTON) -- The military launched a rocket Thursday carrying a test aircraft that could someday reduce the flying time between Los Angeles and New York to minutes -- 12 minutes, to be exact. But controllers said they lost contact with the hypersonic plane less than an hour after it left the ground.

Twelve minutes to cross the country is the estimated flight time for the U.S. military's Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), which launched on its second-ever flight test Thursday morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif. The steerable, rocket-launched craft was designed to fly at Mach 20, or 13,000 mph, before diving into the Pacific Ocean.

The launch was successful, and DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, first reported that the HTV-2 was on course and sending data. But 20 minutes later it sent a message saying it had lost contact with the vehicle.

Another 45 minutes passed. "Downrange assets did not reacquire tracking or telemetry," said DARPA on its Twitter feed. "HTV2 has an autonomous flight termination capability," it said -- probably shorthand for saying it can self-destruct if there is a danger it has flown out of control.

An earlier version of the hypersonic craft, which is unmanned, made a flight back in April 2010, but it also lost contact, nine minutes into flight. Thursday's flight was meant to build on the knowledge from that experiment and add to the technical understanding of hypersonic flight, DARPA said.

The Defense Department is trying to develop technology to respond to threats around the globe at speeds of Mach 20 or greater. A warhead flying through the atmosphere might be harder to intercept than one carried into space by a missile.

Building a hypersonic aircraft is considerably different from a spacecraft, even though a ship in orbit travels faster -- 17,500 mph on average at altitudes of a hundred miles or more. Hypersonic planes need to cut through the atmosphere, and the dynamics of how to do that have proved surprisingly difficult.

The military has a long history of setting aviation milestones. Oct. 14, 1947 marked the first time an airplane flew faster than the speed of sound when the Bell X-1 reached 700 miles per hour, Mach 1.06, and in 1959 test flights began for the X-15, which set new speed records when it attained Mach 4, 5 and 6.

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