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'Hypersonic tech vehicles' for test in 2009

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DARPA*, the wacky Pentagon research bureau where it's always white-coat-and-propellor-hat Friday, has doled out $6m (as part of a $40m "increment" to an earlier "other transaction") to US aerospace colossus Lockheed. The payment is in support of the renewed US military hypersonic-plane programme, variously known as "Falcon" or "Blackswift".

Hypersonic planes have been in the doldrums since the cancellation of the US National Aerospace Plane (NASP) effort in the early '90s, before it even got beyond the research stage. Lots of people - including President Ronald Reagan, who kicked off NASP at the back end of the Cold War - had been hoping for some astounding stuff by the end of the last decade.

Proper spaceplanes were being foretold, which would be able to take off from a runway and accelerate to a blistering Mach 25+, flying themselves up into orbit without scattering discarded boosters everywhere (or hauling homesick Antipodeans home in a couple of hours).

There was - and still is - a lot of military interest in hypersonics, both for missiles which could punch through (for instance) the air defences of a US carrier group, and for worldwide very-rapid recce, bombing, bunker-busting or even troop insertion (though that last one would probably be a one-way trip with backup a long time coming).

It didn't happen, unless you're of the opinion that the US black-projects empire has been operating a top-secret hypersonic spy plane for the past 10 years or so (no doubt cribbing much of the design from wrecked alien saucers, Tibetan hollow-earth void cruisers etc).

However, in recent years a number of relatively small-scale test shots have seen small experimental platforms get up to around Mach 10, confirming that some key technologies actually do work. For instance, it has been shown that fuel can be made to burn usefully in a supersonic combustion chamber airflow, necessary for a working scramjet. It may even be practical to use relatively ordinary jet fuel, rather than fast-burning but annoyingly bulky hydrogen.

DARPA nowadays has a programme called Falcon (Force Application and Launch from the CONtinental US**), which is aimed at letting the American forces reach round the world hypersonically in a matter of just hours to deliver troops or bombs. Ultimately, DARPA would like to have an enormous, possibly unmanned hyperplane the size of a B-52 bomber, capable of way better than Mach 10.

For now, though, the Pentagon deathboffins' ambitions are more moderate. Under the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (HTV) phase of Falcon, various problems will be solved - not least, how to build a practical, reusable airframe that won't simply melt or catch fire under sustained hypersonic flight. HTV-2 test platforms will fly basic, brief profiles in 2008 and 2009, boosted up to speed by rockets.

HTV-3 was formerly to be another relatively ordinary sacrificial test platform, but recent reports now have it that Falcon HTV-3X will become a separate programme called Blackswift in 2009.

This could, according to Wired and Air & Space, apparently be a proper, fighter-sized reusable hyperplane - though probably unmanned - able to take off from a runway and "do a barrel roll at Mach 6" (according to Wired's DARPA sources) before landing once more.

HTV-3X/Blackswift would use specially-adapted ordinary turbojet/ramjets to get up to perhaps Mach 3 or 4 - in similar style to the late, great SR-71 "Blackbird" cold-war spyplane - and then go to hydrogen scramjet mode to achieve top poke.

Friday's contract announcement doesn't make things much clearer, awarding funds for "phase three of the hypersonic technology vehicle portion of the Falcon program. Phase three will include fabrication and assembly of two hypersonic technology vehicles to be flight-tested during 2009".

That hints at more basic HTV-3 test objects for 2009, rather than the fully-fledged HTV-3X/Blackswift. The latter's $800m funding is reportedly to start becoming available only in 2009, jointly from the US Air Force and DARPA.

It'll probably be a while until the proper hypersonic B-52 turns up. ®

*The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

**Pah. What was wrong with Hypersonic Attack and Reconnaissance Delivery for Celerity in Overt Counterterrorist Kills? Say what you mean.

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