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Scientists hope the miniature rockets will enable the first space plane to glide from the ground by mid-2022
The US military has launched three small rockets from Wallops Island in Virginia in tests of hypersonic technologies aimed at enabling the first space plane to glide from the ground to its destination.
To develop hypersonic flight capabilities, scientists are testing technology that will enable aircraft to hit speeds faster than 1,400mph (2,700km/h) and stay aloft for hours at a time.
Once hypersonic flight becomes a reality, aircraft could travel at altitudes as high as 70,000ft (22,000m) and travel for several hours, cutting the distances between far-flung military and commercial hubs.
The three rockets, including three smaller air-launched ones, each weighing 2.5 tonnes, were fired into the air early on Thursday in separate demonstrations of these technologies.
US tests giant hypersonic glide vehicle amid bigger ambitions Read more
Called Polaris, the test was described as “the first space plane demonstration test from a regional, hypersonic launch facility”, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The test could enable the first flight of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s HTV-2 aircraft to test hypersonic capabilities for just under two days at an altitude of 30,000ft, the agency said.
The programme is being managed by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), and is being flown by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Flight Test Squadron (AFRL Flight) and its flight test facility.
It will assist in researching and developing autonomous and automated flight systems and technologies that will enable short hypersonic flight.
The HTV-2 was built in partnership with the private space flight company Blue Origin, for the AFRL.
The state-of-the-art test vehicle features a computer-controlled, unidirectional hypersonic glide system.
As seen from above, hypersonic flight would enable aircraft to reach speeds of up to 5,000mph (8,600km/h) and stay aloft for several hours at a time.
“The military has the unique capability to do precision strike with hypersonic weapons, but that is limited today by a single layer of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites,” Hank Price, the director of technical services at the AFRL Flight, said in a statement.
“Hypersonic aircraft will have the ability to fly around the planet four or five times faster than the speed of sound.”
Last month, the US test director for the US Air Force Research Laboratory said that hypersonic vehicles will be needed in the coming years to project power in the age of militarily evolving threats like Chinese and Russian cruise missiles.
“We could do a war room for tomorrow,” Rick Burns told a briefing at the Pentagon.
In an article published on 28 September, the US journal, Science, stated: “The race to create flying bulletproof domes [is] crucial for a stronger, more powerful US military.”
The magazine adds that, with hypersonic flight, “we’re getting close to a time when our military really can make decisions at lightning speed.”
In the beginning, the article states, a sleek, unarmed hypersonic cruise missile (CCS) could fly around the world four times faster than the speed of sound – but the Pentagon is currently experimenting with other uses for the aircraft – including for the “deterrence of Russia and China”.
Before the first test was staged, the Daily Mail quoted Air Force secretary Heather Wilson as saying that the spacecraft was “commercially certified”.
Brown told the Guardian: “In 2016, PLC-2 got more than 2.6m miles/300km between multiple static separation tests at every flight speed while sustaining virtually zero upper stage dynamics.
“That’s faster than Hell, and that’s coming from a medium-lift airframe (formally) certified by Airbus-owned Pipistrel, the leading propulsion supplier for the Air Force.
“The first US military hypersonic vehicle has just landed for the second time. He who makes the plane flies.”