A Minotaur 4 rocket raced away from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Thursday afternoon, carrying a military experiment designed to glide at 20 times the speed of sound — or faster — for use in a future weapon system.
The Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket — made from retired Peacekeeper missile stages — blasted off at 4 p.m. from Space Launch Complex-8 on South Base. This week’s rainy weather twice scrubbed the blastoff.
Just 36 minutes before the planned noon departure, Thursday’s liftoff was delayed four hours so crews could troubleshoot a faulty sensor on the rocket’s cargo, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2.
Minutes after Minotaur blasted off and quickly disappeared into clouds, ground controllers announced that the payload had separated from the rocket.
However, hours after the launch, officials with DARPA and the Air Force still hadn’t confirmed the outcome of the mission.
The three-stage rocket
carried HTV-2, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., more than 4,000 miles to the Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, conducting several maneuvers before slamming into the central Pacific Ocean.
HTV-2 is an unmanned maneuverable hypersonic air vehicle designed to glide through Earth’s atmosphere “at incredibly fast speeds — Mach 20 and above,” DARPA said. Something traveling at Mach 1 is moving at the speed of sound.
Specifically, HTV-2 was to use an autopilot system to maneuver during the hypersonic glider portion of the flight. DARPA planned three maneuvers — turn at moderate angles “to bleed off” excess energy; short pitch, roll and yaw moves; and a dive into the ocean at more than 13,000 mph.
Specifically, the program aimed to show off innovative high lift-to-drag aerodynamics, advanced “lightweight but tough” thermal protection materials, autonomous hypersonic navigation guidance and control systems and an autonomous flight safety system.
Officials remained tight-lipped about the future uses of this technology. DARPA would only say the military seeks “the capability to respond, with little or no advanced warning, to threats to our national security anywhere around the globe.”
However space policy analyst John Pike with GlobalSecurity.org said the weapon would be “basically a non-nuclear precision strike system to do counterforce against China and Russia.”
This is the first of two HTV missions, with the second planned for 2011. However, that mission depends upon the outcome of the HTV-2 test, according to DARPA officials.
The total projected cost for the development, fabrication and flight test of the two HTV-2 vehicles is $308 million, a DARPA spokeswoman said. Earlier, Air Force officials put a $40 million price on the cost of Thursday’s launch.
The mission marked the debut of the Minotaur 4, although it was the “light” version — using just three Peacekeeper stages. The standard Minotaur 4 will employ those three stages plus a fourth commercially built stage developed by Orbital Sciences.
Another Minotaur 4 launch is scheduled for early July from Vandenberg to carry the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) craft.