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Stratolaunch achieves first powered flight of hypersonic test vehicle

The bleeding edge: A US aerospace company, Stratolaunch Systems, aims to develop the country’s first privately funded, reusable hypersonic test vehicle. This week’s trial shows it is moving to that goal despite the company’s messy beginning.

Stratolaunch Systems conducted the first powered flight of its Talon-A test vehicle, calling it a significant milestone in developing reusable hypersonic test capability. The company’s giant six-engine carrier aircraft dubbed Roc – the world’s largest airplane – took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California with the test vehicle. The Roc carried the test aircraft designated TA-1 attached to its massive wing to a planned altitude, then launched off Califonia’s central coast, eventually landing in the Pacific Ocean.

The objectives for the test flight included a safe air-launch release, engine ignition, acceleration, sustained altitude climb, and controlled water landing. The company claims the vehicle passed with flying colors in all test parameters. Notably, the TA-1’s Hadley rocket engine, designed to push the craft to hypersonic speeds, propelled it for about 200 seconds during the test flight.

Stratolaunch President and CEO Zachary Krevor said the TA-1 reached high supersonic speeds approaching (but not exceeding) Mach 5 and collected tremendous amounts of data. However, he declined to share specific altitude and speed information from the test because of certain confidential customer agreements. The next step is to use the data collected to prepare for TA-2’s first reusable flight later this year.

Stratolaunch is also progressing on the manufacturing of TA-3, the second fully reusable vehicle in the Talon-A product line, as well as beginning modifications to its additional launch platform, the Spirit of Mojave, a modified Boeing 747-400 it acquired from Virgin Orbit’s bankruptcy sale.

Founded in 2011 by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Stratolaunch’s original goal was to launch an orbital vehicle from the Roc. However, it eventually shifted its focus to hypersonic flight testing. Anything flying faster than Mach 1 (the speed of sound) is considered supersonic. Hypersonic flight is anything faster than five times the speed of sound or Mach 5. To that end, Stratolaunch hasn’t quite fulfilled its mission. That said, the company is making progress.

Last month, as part of its preparation for Talon-A’s first powered flight, Stratolaunch conducted a captive carry flight with the TA-1. The test was the second time the Roc carried a Talon vehicle with live propellant. The entire flight lasted a total of 4 hours and 29 minutes.

In this case, the test’s primary objective was to evaluate Talon-A’s propulsion system and the flight environments while carrying live propellant. The mission’s secondary goal was to verify the Roc and TA-1’s tandem telemetry systems with range communication assets. That test was a complete success as well.

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