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DARPA reveals 2009 hyperplane test schedule

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Further details of the US military hypersonics programme have emerged, with confirmation of planned tests above the Pacific in 2009.

Flight International reports that there will be two trials next year, in May and October. These will use Hypersonic Technology Vehicles (HTVs) fired up to speed aboard Minotaur solid-fuel rockets from Vandenberg airforce base in California and landing in the Pacific near Kwajalein atoll. The 2009 HTV-2s are the next step in the FALCON programme (Force Application and Launch from the CONtinental US*), intended one day to provide aircraft capable of hurtling round the world with a load of troops or bombs in mere hours, rather than taking the best part of a day.

DARPA's hypersonic cruise vehicle concept pic

Thanks to FALCON, homesick Kiwis could fly home for a feast

of chocolate cheese slices every week.

Civilian applications of the technology could allow budget airline flights to reach the Antipodes in the sort of time it now takes to visit southern France, perhaps. This could see Brits purchasing weekend holiday villas in Australia, New Zealand and California. There might be a raft of new bestselling books about life among the picturesque locals, along the lines of A Year in Provence. Noted TV chefs from Blighty could start sampling the intriguing local cuisines with greater frequency; for instance, we might see Jamie Oliver's ideas on what to do with New Zealand's famous delicacy, the Chesdale Chocolate Cheese Slice.

Anyway. FALCON is the brainchild of DARPA**, the Pentagon battle-boffinry bureau which doesn't so much seek to turn the established paradigm on its head as to revolve it so fast that it flies out of the window. The rocket-boosted HTV-2s next year will be used to investigate various key phenomena, not least the difficulties of getting navigation and telemetry signals through the blazing plasma that will envelop the craft as it screams through the atmosphere. (Such hot plasma typically cuts off radio comms altogether in the case of re-entering spacecraft.)

"The HTV-2 will have a plasma probe onboard," according to FALCON chief Steve Walker, as quoted by Flight. The DARPA boffinry kingpin was speaking at a conference earlier this week in Ohio.

The HTV-2s will also be used to test thermal protection systems, designed to prevent future hypercraft from suffering midair heat-induced crackups like that which destroyed the space shuttle Columbia. Funding was awarded in December, but the schedule wasn't given in detail.

Assuming all goes well in 2009, the next step will be HTV-3X, or "Blackswift" - a fully re-usable fighter sized concept plane capable of taking off from a runway and accelerating to do a barrel roll at Mach 6+, running on ordinary hydrocarbon jet fuel. Given its name, the Blackswift is fairly evidently intended as a successor to the legendary SR-71 "Blackbird" spy plane of cold war fame - and a worthy successor indeed, as the Blackbird could only do Mach 3+.

There will be sadness in some quarters if and when the Blackswift flies, however, as this will tend to refute the existence of the legendary "Aurora". This top secret hyperspyplane is thought by some to have been flying ever since the Blackbird retired, almost 20 years ago.®

*Sadly the Chief Vulture hasn't sanctioned our alternative acronym-centric name: Hypersonic Attack and Reconnaissance Delivery for Celerity in Overt Counterterrorist Kills.

**Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency

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