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Experimental hypersonic aircraft lost over Pacific, Pentagon says

By Brendan McGarry

Bloomberg News

LAST UPDATED: 11:35 a.m. HST, Aug 11, 2011

A Pentagon agency reported losing contact with an unmanned hypersonic aircraft over the Pacific Ocean less than an hour after launch today.

The experimental Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, or HTV-2, lifted off today in a Minotaur IV rocket made by Orbital Sciences Corp. at 7:45 a.m. local time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, according the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is funding the program and overseeing the tests. The agency made the announcement on Twitter.

The Lockheed Martin Corp.-made, arrowhead-shaped aircraft soared to the edge of space, separated from the booster and was "on track" to enter its glide phase, during which it would reach speeds of Mach 20, or about 13,000 mph, before diving into the Pacific off the coast of Kwajalein Atoll, according to the agency.

Less than an hour later, the agency reported engineers "lost telemetry" with the aircraft. No additional details were provided. Attempts to reach public affairs officers at Vandenberg and the defense agency, commonly known as Darpa, were unsuccessful.

Today's flight was the aircraft's second and final planned test flight. The first attempt on April 22, 2010, ended nine minutes into flight when the on-board computer detected a glitch and forced a splashdown. Data from the maiden voyage indicated the craft reached speeds of between Mach 17 and Mach 22.

A flight from New York to Los Angeles at such speeds would take less than 12 minutes, according to the Pentagon agency.

The project began in 2003 and cost $320 million, Eric Butterbaugh, a spokesman for the agency, said in an e-mail. The goal is to develop technology that could deliver a non-nuclear warhead anywhere in the world within an hour.

Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association in Washington, said the technology is unconstrained by the New Start, a nuclear arms reduction agreement signed last year by U.S. and Russia, and is unlikely to be confused as a nuclear weapon because its trajectory is unlike the Bell-shaped curve of a ballistic missile.

"Most people perceive this to be a niche capability," he said in a telephone interview. "You're not going to build more than a dozen or two of these things."

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