California-based Stratolaunch Systems has debuted a structurally complete prototype of its Talon-A separation test aircraft, along with a view of the vehicle nestled within its unique launch platform. The company says hypersonic test flights could happen as early as this year.
The newly showcased black-and-white prototype, designated TA-0, is not a powered unit, but it represents an important step in that direction. TA-0 won’t be zipping above the Mojave Desert on its own, but private aerospace company Stratolaunch will use the unit to test and validate its carrier aircraft release system, and also study the associated separation dynamics, according to a company press release.
These tests will transpire over the coming months and in advance of actual powered tests, in which the upcoming prototype TA-1 will launch from Roc—a gigantic carrier aircraft—and attempt hypersonic flight. (Hypersonic describes vehicles or missiles capable of traveling faster than Mach 5; supersonic refers to faster than Mach 1.)
In early May, Roc performed its fifth flight since tests began three years ago. The carrier aircraft is the largest plane ever built, featuring a dual fuselage and a wingspan that stretches 385 feet (117 meters) across. Weighing roughly 250 tons, Roc requires 12,000 feet (3.65 kilometers) of runway clearance to take flight.
When Stratolaunch was founded back in 2011, its original goal was to launch planes to space, similar to how Virgin Galactic currently does it with SpaceShipTwo. The company recently switched gears, however, and is now focusing on hypersonic vehicles, though the development of spaceplanes remains a long-term goal. Stratolaunch is currently under contract with the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to provide a testing platform for developing mitigations against hypersonic threats, namely hypersonic missile threats from China and Russia. By obtaining proprietary hypersonic vehicles, the Pentagon plans to test various defense strategies against them.
“The Talon-A testbed capability ultimately enables routine access to the hypersonic flight environment, which is critical for scientific research, technological development, and component demonstration,” according to the company press release.
In addition to our first view of the Talon-A separation test vehicle, Stratolaunch also released an image showing TA-0 attached to Roc’s pylon on the center wing. The 8,000-pound pylon, constructed from aluminum and carbon fiber skins, debuted during the May 4 flight, and it’s designed to carry and release Talon-A hypersonic vehicles. The pylon measures 14 feet (4.2 meters) across, which still allows for ample launch clearance space along Roc’s 95-foot-long (29-meter) center wing. The system also includes a winch, allowing for the quick loading of vehicles from the ground and without an intense need for ground support.
Future versions of Talon-A vehicles will be rocket powered and capable of carrying customizable payloads at hypersonic speeds. The pending tests of TA-0, should they go well, could lead to hypersonic tests of TA-1 later in the year, according to the Stratolaunch press release. A third vehicle, designated TA-2, is currently under construction and, unlike TA-1, it’s being designed for full reusability.
In March, the United States tested a hypersonic missile but refrained from publicizing the test for fear of antagonizing Russia, which invaded Ukraine on February 20, CNN reported.