Deja-vu: DARPA's Mach 20 Falcon dives into ocean after nine-minute flight

DARPA says high-Mach flight in the atmosphere is virtually uncharted territory

falcon
The second test of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency  Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) ended in the same fashion it predecessor did, crashing into the Pacific Ocean nine minutes into its flight.

"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.  It's vexing; I'm confident there is a solution. We have to find it," said Air Force Maj. Chris Schulz, DARPA HTV-2 program manager and PhD in aerospace engineering in a posting on the agency's Web site.

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DARPA noted that the second test flight began with launch at 0745 Pacific Time.  The Minotaur IV vehicle successfully inserted the aircraft into the desired trajectory.  Separation of the vehicle was confirmed by rocket cam and the aircraft transitioned to Mach 20 aerodynamic flight.  This transition represents a critical knowledge and control point in maneuvering atmospheric hypersonic flight.  More than nine minutes of data was collected before an anomaly caused loss of signal.  Initial indications are that the aircraft landed in the Pacific Ocean along the planned flight path, DARPA stated.

"Prior to flight, the technical team completed the most sophisticated simulations and extensive wind tunnel tests possible.  But these ground tests have not yielded the necessary knowledge.  Filling the gaps in our understanding of hypersonic flight in this demanding regime requires that we be willing to fly," said DARPA Director Regina Dugan. "In the April 2010 test, we obtained four times the amount of data previously available at these speeds.  Today more than 20 air, land, sea and space data collection systems were operational.  We'll learn. We'll try again. That's what it takes."

The HTV-2 is designed to fly anywhere in the world in less than 60 minutes.  This capability requires an aircraft that can fly at 13,000 mph, while experiencing temperatures in excess of 3,500F.  With that information as a backdrop, DARPA describes the Falcon as a "data truck" with numerous sensors that collect data in an uncertain operating envelope.  For its second test flight, engineers adjusted the HTV-2's center of gravity, decreased the angle of attack flown, and will use the onboard reaction control system to augment the vehicle flaps to maintain stability during flight operations, the agency stated.

 The first flight of the Falcon in 2010 "collected data that demonstrated advances in high lift-to-drag aerodynamics; high temperature materials; thermal protection systems; autonomous flight safety systems; and advanced guidance, navigation, and control for long-duration hypersonic flight."

 "To address these obstacles, DARPA has assembled a team of experts that will analyze the flight data collected during today's test flight, expanding our technical understanding of this incredibly harsh flight regime," explained Schulz.  "As today's flight indicates, high-Mach flight in the atmosphere is virtually uncharted territory."

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