Well, the Army made it happen, it successfully tested its own hypersonic weapon prototype that could lead to a class of conventionally-armed missiles capable of striking any target on Earth in less than two hours.
The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon was launched from Hawaii this morning at 6:30 Eastern time and flew roughly 2,400 miles to Kwajelien atoll. No word yet on how fast the AHW glide vehicle, (the part that would carry a weapon), powered by a three-stage booster rocket, made the journey. The Pentagon says it reached hypersonic speeds; that means it had to be flying at more than Mach 5 at some point.
The AHW stayed well within the Earth’s atmosphere, followng a “non-ballistic” trajectory as it sped toward its target. Why is that detail important? Here’s an excerpt from an interview I did with Boeing officials working on a similar project in September:
Basically, a ground-launched PGS weapon would cut a much lower and flatter path through the air than a nuclear-armed ICBM, something that would instantly show other nations that this isn’t preemptive nuclear strike.
“This is a depressed trajectory and if your were to track [the PGS’] ballistic profile” it’s much lower than a regular ICBM, said Boeing’s Rick Hartle during a briefing on Tuesday at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Md.
Today’s test was meant to “collect data on hypersonic boost-glide technologies and test range performance for long-range atmospheric flight. Mission emphasis is aerodynamics; navigation, guidance, and control; and thermal protection technologies,” reads a Pentagon press release on the flight.
Remember that the Air Force has been working on it’s own versions of this technology; experimenting with scramjet tech and a system that uses former Peacekeeper ICBM’s to launch a glide vehicle to hypersonic speeds. The Army’s less ambitious effort sounds like it is off to a better start, so far anyway.
Click through the jump to read the press release and see a rough sketch of how a PGS weapon would fly to avoid being confused for an ICBM.
Here’s the Pentagon’s announcement of the flight:
Today the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command conducted the first test flight of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) concept. At 6:30 a.m. EST (1:30 a.m. Hawaii-Aleutian Time), a first-of-its-kind glide vehicle, designed to fly within the earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speed and long range, was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii to the Reagan Test Site, U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll.
The objective of the test is to collect data on hypersonic boost-glide technologies and test range performance for long-range atmospheric flight. Mission emphasis is aerodynamics; navigation, guidance, and control; and thermal protection technologies.
A three-stage booster system launched the AHW glide vehicle and successfully deployed it on the desired flight trajectory. The vehicle flew a non-ballistic glide trajectory at hypersonic speed to the planned impact location at the Reagan Test Site. Space, air, sea, and ground platforms collected vehicle performance data during all phases of flight. The data collected will be used by the Department of Defense to model and develop future hypersonic boost-glide capabilities.
The AHW program is managed and executed by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command program office in Huntsville, Ala. The booster system and glide vehicle were developed by Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, N.M. and the thermal protection system by the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, Huntsville, Ala.
The Department of Defense is using AHW to develop and demonstrate technologies for Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS). As part of the CPGS effort, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency conducted boost-glide flight tests in April 2010 and August 2011, results from which were used in planning the AHW flight test.
Here’s a drawing Hartle did for me (hey, it gets the job done) showing the PGS’ trajectory versus a nuclear missile. The nuke is the line that curves high up what should be the Y-axis while the PGS is the squiggly line that stays close to the X-axis.