This Thursday, August 11th 2011 was supposed to be a momentous day in the lives of everyone involved with The Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). On a sunny morning at the Vandenberg air force base in California the world’s fastest ever plane the HTV-2 launched off the back of a rocket headed towards the Pacific Ocean. DARPA, along with the U.S Air Force had for years been in control of planning, assembling and launching the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2). The idea behind HTV-2 was to develop a high speed plane that could effectively deliver a precision conventional weapon strike anywhere within the world in one hour or less. This feat can already be achieved with a nuclear warhead but not with less damaging non-nuclear weapons.
At first, the flight seemed to be performing perfectly on the mission as it successfully separating from the rocket at the edge of space before starting its descent back down to earth. However, suddenly 36 minutes into the flight whilst the HTV 2 was in the gliding process it was practising, contact with the plane was lost. According to DARPA the HTV 2, which is an unmanned aircraft, had been programmed to perform a set of manoeuvres whilst coming back to earth but something had gone wrong as the plane plummeted through the atmosphere. It is reported that the plane, at top speed, can reach up to Mach 20 (20 times the speed of sound) and can fly from New York to L.A in just 12 minutes.
In the future DARPA say they need to modify the aerodynamic abilities of the HTV 2 and they won’t be giving up the project anytime soon if it is up to them. After this latest failure, those in charge will decide if DARPA will be allowed to carry on the project in the future. If this flight had worked, it may have been the first step to the HTV 2 replacing intercontinental ballistic missiles. For all the engineers involved the HTV 2 project is something nobody has faced before and may have wondered if it is viable to have planes flying at such extraordinary speeds.
Whilst the test run only managed 36 minutes, in April 2010 the first ever test flight for the HTV 2 lasted a meagre 9 minutes after a fatal computer glitch which saw engineers having to fly the plane into the sea. The proposed flight overview of what was supposed to happen can be seen below.