Stratolaunch Resurrects Its Hypersonic Rocket Vehicle Under a New Name: Talon-A

Stratolaunch Resurrects Its Hypersonic Rocket Vehicle Under a New Name: Talon-A

Now that it's under new management, Stratolaunch is retooling a concept for a rocket-powered hypersonic vehicle that it first unveiled 18 months ago.

Back then, it was called the Hyper-A testbed vehicle, and it represented one of the engineering frontiers for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's space venture.

A month later, Allen passed away at the age of 65 after battling a recurrence of non-Hodgkin's disease. Stratolaunch went through a year's worth of retrenching, leading to a change of ownership last October.

The new ownership group, led by billionaire investor Steve Feinberg, recently confirmed that it was continuing Stratolaunch's work on hypersonic vehicles — and today it unveiled a rebranded version of the Hyper-A, now known as the Talon-A.

Stratolaunch also said it eventually intends to develop a larger hypersonic vehicle once known as Hyper-Z, and now called Talon-Z, plus a space plane nicknamed Black Ice that could carry payloads and perhaps even people to orbit.

The reusable Talon-A measures 28 feet long, with a wingspan of 11.3 feet and a launch weight of roughly 6,000 pounds. Stratolaunch says the Talon-A should be capable of flying at speeds ranging from Mach 5 to Mach 7, which matches the specs for Hyper-A.

"The Talon-A will be launched from the Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, the world's largest aircraft by wingspan, conduct long-duration flight at high Mach and glide back for an autonomous, horizontal landing on a conventional runway," Stratolaunch spokesman Art Pettigrue said in an email. "The vehicle will also be capable of autonomous takeoff, under its own power, via a conventional runway."

Stratolaunch First Flight

Stratolaunch says it has enough funding to support Talon-A's development at least through an upcoming hypersonic flight test. The company's timeline calls for the reusable Talon-A test vehicle as well as its twin-fuselage, 385-foot-wide carrier plane to go into operation in 2022.

The plane is designed with enough lift capacity to carry up to three Talon-A's at a time. Multi-mission, single-aircraft sorties are due to start in 2023.

There's lots to be done between now and then. So far, the carrier airplane (nicknamed Roc, after the giant bird of Arabic and Persian mythology) has had only one test flight, a 2.5-hour-long outing last April at California's Mojave Air and Space Port. That's where Seattle-based Stratolaunch has its factory and its mammoth hangar. Over the next two years, Stratolaunch will have to get the airplane ready for regular flights, and transform the Talon-A from a drawing-board concept into flightworthy hardware.

Back in 2018, Hyper-A was meant to blaze a trail for rolling out the larger Hyper-Z vehicle, capable of traveling faster than Mach 10, within as little as five years. Pettigrue confirmed that Talon-Z is still part of the plan, but said "we don't have a specific timeframe to share."

The same goes for Black Ice, the space shuttle-like craft that first came to light a little more than two years ago. At that time, Stratolaunch called Black Ice "an aspirational concept." Today, it said Black Ice would be "a fully reusable space plane that enables advanced on-orbit capabilities and cargo return."

"Initial designs optimized for cargo launch, with a follow-on variant capable of transporting crew," the company said.

When Allen founded Stratolaunch in 2011, the company's air-launch concept was presented as a potential platform for launching satellites to orbit. But the new owners have turned the focus to hypersonic flight, which is considered one of the foremost frontiers for national security.

For years, U.S. officials have been sounding the alarm about the hypersonic attack vehicles being developed in China and Russia. The Defense Department is funding several hypersonic weapons development programs in an attempt to catch up.

In 2017, for instance, Boeing won a contract worth up to $146 million for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Experimental Spaceplane Program, or XSP. Boeing ended its role in the hypersonic program this January, but DARPA said the effort "affirmed that no technical showstoppers stand in the way of achieving DARPA's objectives, and that a system such as XSP would bolster national security."

Stratolaunch hopes to get in on that kind of program.

"Stratolaunch is developing a fleet of hypersonic testbeds that will provide routine access to the hypersonic flight environment," Pettigrue said in his email. "The purpose is to accelerate the nation's need for high-speed test capabilities to rapidly and efficiently advance hypersonic technologies and field hypersonic systems."

Pettigrue said Stratolaunch intends to make "testing and operating in hypersonic environments routine and affordable even for the most leading-edge ambitions in the U.S. national security industry."

He said Talon-A will be highly instrumented to collect data about the craft's performance as well as payload experiments during flight. Such data can be recorded aboard the vehicle, or transmitted securely to ground stations.

Stratolaunch has been in semi-stealth mode since last October's change of ownership, but Pettigrue said there's lots going on behind the scenes. "While the COVID-19 virus has altered how we conduct business in the short term, it hasn't stopped us from pushing forward," he said.

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