The U.S. Army had to destroy its futuristic space weapon during a test launch at its remote Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska on Monday.
The Department of Defense says it was conducting a test of its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon when a flight anomaly forced flight engineers to terminate the launch shortly after liftoff.
Defense Department spokesperson Maureen Schumann said the termination was done "to ensure public safety," and that officials were conducting an extensive investigation to determine what caused the launch to go awry.
Shortly after 4 a.m. EDT, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, as part of the Defense Department's Conventional Prompt Global Strike technology development program, conducted a flight test of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska.Due to an anomaly, the test was terminated near the launch pad shortly after lift-off to ensure public safety. There were no injuries to any personnel.
Officials are trying to determine what caused the anomaly, but they believe debris fell within the grounds of the commercial spaceport, located about 44 miles south of the city of Kodiak on Kodiak Island, off Alaska's southern coast. The video below shows the aftermath of the explosion:
The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, named Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (or HTV-2 for short), is a DARPA project that has been in testing for nearly five years.
It was developed by Sandia National Laboratory — a Lockheed Martin subsidiary — and the U.S. Army as part of the military's "Conventional Prompt Global Strike" technology development program, which aims to build a weapon that can destroy targets anywhere on Earth within one hour.
A presentation created by Sandia National Laboratory's David L. Keese, Director, Integrated Military Systems, details the challenges of creating such a weapon:
According to Lockheed Martin, the HTV-2 is a "multiyear research and development effort to increase the technical knowledge base and advance critical technologies to make long-duration hypersonic flight a reality." It would make the commute between Brooklyn and LA faster than a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Falcon HTV-2 is an unmanned, rocket-launched, maneuverable aircraft that glides through the Earth’s atmosphere at incredibly fast speeds—Mach 20 (approximately 13,000 miles per hour). At HTV-2 speeds, flight time between New York City and Los Angeles would be less than 12 minutes. The HTV-2 vehicle is a “data truck” with numerous sensors that collect data in an uncertain operating envelope.
The agency intends for the HTV-2 to be the fastest aircraft ever built. DARPA says it’s designed to fly anywhere in the world in less than 60 minutes, a capability that requires an aircraft that can fly at 13,000 miles per hour, while experiencing temperatures in excess of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Air doesn’t travel around you — You rip it apart," as DARPA puts it on its website.
On a typical test launch, the HTV-2 travels aboard a launch vehicle, as it reaches near-space heights. It then detaches from the vehicle, re-entering Earth’s upper atmosphere.
From there, the aircraft glides along while researchers test its aerodynamic performance before it dives into the ocean.
HTV-2 has been tested several times after its first flight in 2010, during which time it experienced several flight anomalies. Officials continue to adjust the aircraft in an effort to finalize the craft.
There are three technical challenges DARPA lists on its website dedicated to the project: Aerodynamics (it travels 22x faster than a commercial jetliner), Aerothermal Effects (those temperatures are "hotter than a blast furnace capable of melting steel") and Guidance, Navigation & Control. ("Imagine trying to steer around a pothole in the highway while traveling 3.6 miles per second.")
In 2008, a suborbital rocket with two NASA hypersonic experiments on board was similarity destroyed shortly after liftoff. The majority of the debris fell into the Atlantic Ocean but some was reportedly spotted on land. Officials warned civilians not to touch it, stating the debris could be hazardous. "NASA is very disappointed in this failure but has directed its focus on protecting public safety and conducting a routine confirmation of the effectiveness of its range safety operations," NASA said at the time.