Thursday, August 11, 2011

Falcon Fails Again

The Air Force's second test of its Falcon Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) has ended in failure.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the unmanned, high-speed aircraft stopped sending telemetry during the glide phase of its flight, about 20 minutes into a scheduled 30-minute mission. However, USAF officials still hope to recover the craft--or what's left of it--since the HGV has an "autonomous flight termination capabilty" and may have ditched itself in the Pacific Ocean. But with a maximum speed of Mach 20, if the aircraft departed controlled flight, it likely splintered before hitting the water.

In the test flight, the aircraft, known as the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, was launched at 7:45 a.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base, located northwest of Santa Barbara, into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere aboard an eight-story Minotaur IV rocket, made by Orbital Sciences Corp.

After reaching an undisclosed sub-orbital altitude, the aircraft jettisoned from its protective cover atop the rocket, then nose-dived back toward Earth, leveled out and was supposed to glide above the Pacific at 20 times the speed of sound, or Mach 20.

The plan was for the Falcon to speed westward for 30 minutes before plunging into the ocean near Kwajalein Atoll, about 4,000 miles from Vandenberg.

But about 20 minutes into the mission, the Pentagon’s research arm, known as Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, announced on its Twitter account that: “Range assets have lost telemetry.”

The end of today's test flight sounds similar to a failure that terminated the first Falcon test back in April 2010. During that demonstration, the aircraft failed only nine minutes into its flight, sending engineers back to the drawing boards. Depending on what caused today's failure, the HGV may require additional modifications.

The research program is often touted as a critical step in developing aircraft that can rravel great distances in a relatively short time. HGV incorporates many key technologies that would be used in "space planes" that could fly from New York to London or Los Angeles to Sydney in a matter of minutes, rather than hours.

But the HGV platform has military uses, too. Russia has been working on similar technology for years (with a similar lack-of-success), aimed at creating a high-speed, precision weapons (read: nuclear) delivery system that can evade air and missile defenses. It's quite likely that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which is leading our HGV effort, has a similar application in mind.

As a weapons platform, the HGV has a number of advantages; first, it's simply too fast for the current generation of missile defenses, rendering billions of dollars in hardware obsolete. Secondly, it is difficult to distinguish an HGV deployment from that of a satellite, compounding identification problems and reducing warning times.

Russian sources make no bones about the purpose of their HGV. It's aimed at slipping beneath ballistic missile radar detection and defense systems, and putting a nuke on a western target. That's one reason the subject never comes up in arms control discussions. That will change only if we can perfect the technology before Moscow does, giving the Russians something else to worry about--and negotiate out of the U.S. arsenal.

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