Stratolaunch takes ready-to-fly hypersonic craft skyward, but still no launch
Scheduled summer Mach 5 flight deadline came and went
Stratolaunch has taken its Talon-A reusable hypersonic aircraft into the sky fully fueled and ready to launch, but the long-delayed test flight isn't happening yet.
The operator of the world's largest aircraft said reported it had flown the Roc mothership, which will be used as an airborne launcher for its reusable hypersonic craft, for a three-hour tour with the first fully-fueled Talon-A. When it finally launches, the unmanned aircraft is designed to fly at Mach 5 or above carrying a variety of payloads, before landing ready for reuse.
Founded in part by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2011, Stratolaunch said that TA-1 was fully fueled "with live propellant as part of a buildup approach for Talon-A's first powered flight" - A flight that was supposed to take place this past summer, according to its claims after its last test flight in May.
That flight saw Roc, take an unpowered Talon-A into the air to demonstrate a clean separation from the mothership, which you can see below. By design, the dual-fuselage Roc, which carries the Talon-A between its two bodies, is designed to launch reusable Talon-A's from an altitude of 30,000 feet. Up to three Talon-A hypersonic aircraft can be carried by the jumbo-jumbo jet.
Since then, however, Stratolaunch has been largely quiet, with its planned summer launch of the TA-1, designed to be a single-use test craft, seemingly stalled.
As of November, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics said Stratolaunch was planning to fly TA-1 before the end of the year, but there are precious few days left in 2023 and the startup is only just now taking to the air to see how TA-1 handles its operating environment when fully fueled.
"Initial results from today's flight show that the system has performed as predicted, and we will determine our next steps pending the full data review of the test," Stratolaunch CEO Dr. Zachary Krevor said of the flight over the weekend. How long that review will take, and when TA-1 may be launched is unclear - we've reached out with questions, but haven't heard back.
Let's hope hypersonics fly faster than their development pace
Hypersonic craft, or weapons if you want to limit them to blowing up targets, are designed to travel at Mach 5 or faster while retaining the ability to be controlled. The ultra-fast craft are a new frontier in the global arms race - and one the US has struggled to keep up in.
Perennial US rivals China, Russia and North Korea have all claimed to have fielded their own hypersonic weapons, and the US made its first test launch of a fully-equipped Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) a year ago.
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Since then, ARRW has been canned by the US Air Force after multiple development delays and failed launches, and the Pentagon seems to have shifted its focus to defending against hypersonic weapons instead of trying to build their own.
Stratolaunch, which has its own checkered history of near-shutdowns and buyouts, was awarded a contract with the US Navy last month to fund five flights of the Talon-A system. Given Stratolaunch's failure to meet its own TA-1 launch timeline, it remains to be seen whether it'll contribute to an American hypersonic future, or just be another high-speed misfire. ®