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Minotaur rocket to carry military weapon

August 9, 2011


More than 15 months after the first one failed, the Defense Department plans a second test of its super-fast weapon that will ride in a rocket scheduled to launch Wednesday morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The Minotaur 4 Lite rocket, assembled by Orbital Sciences Corp. crews from retired Peacekeeper missile stages, is scheduled to blast off between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday from Space Launch Complex-8 on South Base.

The rocket will carry the Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle or HTV-2 for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Tactical Projects Office.

Weather for Wednesday morning remains suitable for blastoff, but not necessarily viewing. Launch weather officers say the marine layer and fog will be prevalent at the start of the window, but begin breaking up later in the morning. Visibility is expected to be one mile with mist falling.

Space weather could pose a problem with forecasters, noting a 60-percent likelihood that a solar flare could cause a delay. A solar flare is a burst of magnetic energy from the sun that could interfere with satellites in space and power systems on Earth.

HTV-2 is an arrowhead-shaped weapon that can fly at super fast speeds, a way to deliver a conventional warhead anywhere in the world.

“The ultimate goal is a capability that can reach anywhere in the world in less than an hour,” DARPA’s website says.

Pentagon officials have dubbed this Conventional Prompt Global Strike capability.

Specifically, the weapon is designed to fly at Mach 20, or 13,000 mph, DARPA officials said. For perspective, this speed means a flight between New York City and Los Angeles would last less than 12 minutes, DARPA says on its website.

The total projected cost for the development, fabrication and flight test of the two HTV-2 vehicles is $308 million, a DARPA official said in 2010. Earlier, Air Force officials put a $40 million price on the cost of each launch.

Another Minotaur 4 Lite rocket launched in April 2010 with the first HTV-2, but DARPA officials announced the day after the blastoff that the experiment had failed.

Before the flop, the HTV gathered nine minutes of flight data, “including 139 seconds of Mach 22 to Mach 17 aerodynamic data.”

Last year, DARPA officials said an engineering review board determined that the flight was terminated when HTV-2 began to roll so violently it exceeded the weapon’s capabilities, according to the Washington Times.

DARPA officials recently refused to answer questions about the failure of the multimission dollar mission.

However, on the program’s website, they said the first flight’s failure led to fixes for the second mission.

“First flight lessons learned, high-speed wind tunnel testing and computer simulations were used to improve aerodynamic models and to optimize the vehicle design and trajectory for flight two,” DARPA said.

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