Stratolaunch LOx Test Marks Step Toward First Hypersonic Flight

Credit: Stratolaunch/Matt Hartman

COLORADO SPRINGS—Hypersonic test company Stratolaunch completed the first taxi test of the Roc carrier aircraft and rocket-configured Talon TA-1 vehicle fueled with liquid oxygen (LOx) propellant on Nov. 21 in the run-up to a forthcoming captive carry flight.

Following analysis of data from the taxi test, the company aims to make at least one captive carry flight before attempting the first Mach 5 test with TA-1. “We obtained useful data to compare to our models and simulations that will be used in our final preparations for our powered flight,” Stratolaunch CEO and President Zachary Krevor says.

The latest test, conducted at Stratolaunch’s Mojave Air & Spaceport, California, site was used to “collect data, understand the operating procedures, and determine we were working through the test procedures at a safe and appropriate pace,” the company says.

The Talon is powered by the 5,000-lb.-thrust Ursa Major-built Hadley rocket engine, the U.S.’s first oxygen-rich staged combustion engine which is designed to propel the vehicle to hypersonic speed for several minutes of flight time. Although Stratolaunch successfully completed a separation test earlier this year of an unpowered Talon from Roc over Vandenberg Space Force Base’s (SFB) Western Range off California’s central coast, the TA-1 flight will be the first to evaluate the complete system in free flight at full power.

The first powered flight will simulate an approach to a runway landing and terminate with a splashdown in the ocean. A follow-on mission–TA-2–will be the first to attempt an autonomous landing and recovery at Vandenberg. Primary objectives for the TA-1 test include safe release, vehicle stabilization, engine ignition and acceleration to hypersonic flight conditions around Mach 5.

Payloads and experiments incorporated into TA-1 will support hypersonic system tests contracted by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in November 2022. TA-1 will also be used to demonstrate SkyRange, a new airborne test range instrumentation system incorporating–among other elements–specially modified Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Range Hawk and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Range Reapers acquired from the U.S. Air Force by the DOD’s Test Resource Management Center.

Additional experiments planned for TA-2 were also announced on Sept. 28 when Stratolaunch was awarded a $12.2 million contract through the Air Force Test Center at Edwards AFB, California. On Oct. 12 Stratolaunch also announced an additional contract from AFRL which supports the first flight test of the second reusable Talon-A, TA-3.

TA-2 will also mark the first of several tests planned for the Multi-Service Advanced Capability Hypersonics Test Bed (MACH-TB)–a U.S. Navy funded modular, experimental glide body program managed by the Naval Air Warfare Center at Crane, Indiana. MACH-TB is led by Dynetics–manufacturer of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body for the Dark Eagle missile which supports the U.S. Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon and the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike programs.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.