Stratolaunch's air-launched test vehicle hits supersonic speed

TA-1 test ticks off all the primary objectives, but hypersonic flight will have to wait

Stratolaunch has finally completed the first powered flight of the Talon-A test vehicle – TA-1 – which was dropped from its carrier aircraft – the monstrous Roc – for a planned dunking in the Pacific.

The flight is a milestone in the turbulent history of the company, which was founded in 2011 by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The original plan had called for an orbital vehicle to be air-launched from the Roc, but the focus was changed to hypersonic flight testing. Hence, the TA-1 mission.

According to Stratolaunch, the primary objectives accomplished in the flight test included demonstrating the air-launch release system, lighting up the engine of the TA-1, accelerating, and climbing before making a controlled rendezvous with the ocean.

There were no plans to reuse TA-1. That honor will go to TA-2, which is due for launch later in 2024.

Stratolaunch didn't provide many details about the flight, ascribing its reticence to "proprietary agreements with our customers." However, Dr. Zachary Krevor, president and CEO of Stratolaunch, said that all primary and customer objectives from the flight were met, and "we reached high supersonic speeds approaching Mach 5."

Hypersonic flight is generally accepted as being faster than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5. So Stratolaunch has a bit more work to do as it proceeds through its test program.

Talon-A is described by Stratolaunch as "an autonomous, reusable testbed" to allow customers to collect data from high-speed regimes. The vehicle is carried between the twin hulls of the enormous Roc carrier aircraft and air-launched. Similar vehicles include Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo and Eve combination, but the Roc, with its six engines – liberated from a pair of Boeing 747s – is an enormous vehicle.

The Roc's wingspan is greater than the near 80 meters of an Airbus A380, and according to Stratolaunch, it has a payload capacity of more than 500,000 lbs (226,796 kg.) The company also picked up a Boeing 747 in Virgin Orbit's bankruptcy sale and renamed it "The Spirit of Mojave." For some reason, "The Spirit of Bearded Failure" did not make the cut.

While the former Virgin Orbit carrier aircraft does not have the payload capacity of the Roc, it does benefit from the fact that a Boeing 747 can fly into many more airports and, thanks in part to the work of Virgin Orbit, is a proven platform for air-launches.

The next Talon-A vehicle, TA-2, is due for launch later this year, and TA-3 is currently under construction. ®

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