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Will DARPA's 13,000-mph plane fly?

The Falcon HTV-2 was expected to glide through the upper atmosphere at speeds up to Mach 20, but the flight ended prematurely in the Pacific.


DARPA this morning launched a rocket carrying what's hoped to be an unbelievably fast unmanned plane that can fly at 13,000 mph, an unprecedented speed that would take it from New York to Los Angeles in less than 12 minutes and potentially deliver a military strike anywhere in the world in under an hour.

Designed to explore long-duration hypersonic flight, the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) was launched aboard a Minotaur IV Lite rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

It's expected to glide through the upper atmosphere over the Pacific at up to Mach 20 and then splash down near Kwajalein Atoll, some 4,000 miles from Vandenberg.

Over 20 "test assets" on sea, land, air, and in space will be gathering data during the flight to improve understanding of the extreme challenges of hypersonic flight, which denotes speeds beyond Mach 5, as the vehicle performs maneuvers.

The flight is the second for the test vehicle following its maiden flight in April 2010, during which nine minutes of flight data were gathered, including 139 seconds flying at Mach 17-22. Two-way communication and GPS signals were maintained while it flew at 3.6 miles per second.

In May 2010, the Air Force's X-51A Waverider set a record for an aircraft powered by a scramjet (or "supersonic combustion ramjet") engine with 200 seconds of autonomous flight at Mach 5.

Below, check out the video of the HTV-2's expected flight profile.

HTV-2 with rocket
Here's what the HTV-2 would look like just before separating from its launch rocket. DARPA

Update 10:35 a.m. PT: It doesn't look good for the flight of the Falcon. A little while ago, DARPA tweeted that "range assets have lost telemetry with #HTV2" and then followed up more ominously with this: "Downrange assets did not reacquire tracking or telemetry. #HTV2 has an autonomous flight termination capability."

Update 12:57 p.m. PT: Falcon's flight has ended prematurely in the Pacific Ocean.

DARPA reports that after the HTV-2 separated from the Minotaur launch rocket and entered into its planned trajectory, "the aircraft transitioned to Mach 20 aerodynamic flight"--though saying that it started on that flight isn't the same as saying how fast it was actually traveling. "More than nine minutes of data was collected," DARPA said, "before an anomaly caused loss of signal. "

Now the agency has to dig into the data to figure out exactly what happened, and how to better prepare for the next test flight.

"Here's what we know," said Air Force Maj. Chris Schulz, DARPA's HTV-2 program manager, in a statement. "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."

Shulz described the failure of the flight phase as vexing, though he said he remains optimistic.

"As today's flight indicates," he said, "high-Mach flight in the atmosphere is virtually uncharted territory."