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Will crash of hypersonic Falcon HTV-2 set back Pentagon's ambitious plans?

Thursday's test flight of the Falcon HTV-2 ended with signals lost and a crash landing into the Pacific – but not before it sent engineers half an hour of flight data. The Pentagon hopes the design will allow a non-nuclear response to threats anywhere in the world, within one hour.

By Staff writer / August 11, 2011

This artist's rendering shows the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2). The Falcon HTV-2 is an unmanned, rocket-launched, maneuverable aircraft that glides through the Earth’s atmosphere at Mach 20, approximately 13,000 miles per hour.

DARPA/AP

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The latest prototype in the Pentagon’s attempts to develop what is, in essence, a Mach 20 drone that can strike any target on earth within an hour, lasted no more than about 30 minutes before losing contact with ground stations Thursday.

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That marks an improvement on the first prototype, launched in April 2010, which gathered data for about nine minutes before it began tumbling uncontrollably and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

An arrowhead-shaped vehicle, the Falcon HTV-2 was laden with sensors to gather data on how the shape performs in the atmosphere as it travels between 17 and 22 times the speed of sound, or close to 4 miles per second.

IN PICTURES: Supersonic planes

This second mission was to have contributed "further insights into extremely high Mach regimes that we cannot fully replicate on the ground," said the project's program manager, Air Force Maj. Chris Schulz, in a prepared statement.

The initial flight plan was for the Falcon HTV-2 to separate from its rocket shortly after launch. Its built-in steering jets were to have oriented the craft to immediately reenter the atmosphere and glide to a splashdown near Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Pentagon's ballistic missile test range in the Pacific.

After the successful launch Thursday, however, officials at the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) lost contact with the vehicle during its glide stage.

Built by Lockheed Martin, the Falcon HTV-2 was part of the Pentagon's Conventional Prompt Global Strike Program, established during the Bush administration to provide a non-nuclear alternative for a quick response to attacks on US forces or imminent threats to US allies.

A scenario might go something like this:

A rogue state is making final preparations to launch a nuclear missile. The intelligence is reliable. The time to react is short.

What's the Pentagon to do?

How about launching an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) – but instead of a nuclear warhead, the missile would loft an explosives-laden, self-guided, hypersonic warhead capable of quickly ducking back into the atmosphere after the missile releases it.

In less than an hour after launch, the warhead would reach the nuclear-missile site.

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