The Pentagon released video of a test flight of an unmanned experimental aircraft as it sped through air at 13,000 mph this month above the Pacific Ocean.
The video was “captured from a hand-held camera operated by a crew member aboard the Pacific Tracker — the first sea-borne telemetry collection asset able to visually monitor” the aircraft in its test flight.
In the test flight, the aircraft, known as the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, was launched Aug. 11 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, 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 suborbital 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 the Pentagon’s research arm, known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which was responsible for the test, lost its data connection with the arrowhead-shaped plane.
Subsequently, the Falcon failed three minutes into the flight and splashed down in the Pacific.
But on Thursday, DARPA issued a release saying that the flight wasn’t a complete failure, and that more than 20 air, land, sea and space data collection systems were operational.
“Scientists believe that very high-quality data collected from the combined test range assets will aid our further understanding of this unique flight environment,” DARPA said. “The footage released today shows how rapidly a vehicle can travel from horizon to horizon at Mach 20.”
It was the second and last scheduled flight for the Falcon program, which began in 2003 and cost taxpayers about $320 million. Both flights failed to go the distance.
-- W.J. Hennigan
Image: An artist's rendering of the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2. Credit: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency