The development of a hypersonic unmanned aircraft that can reach any target 10,000 miles from the US in just two hours is set to begin, following the selection of contractors by the US Department of Defence.
Project Falcon will develop a hypersonic cruise vehicle (HCV), as it is known, capable of launching from the US and firing weapons from high altitude almost anywhere in the world. It is expected to come into service in 2025.
In the interim the project will develop a hypersonic glider, which is hoped to be ready for deployment by 2010.
Last week, negotiations began with 12 firms, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, to agree definition studies for the project.
This work will involve the development of designs and cost objectives for the glider, or common aero vehicle, a small launch vehicle, which will propel the glider to its target, as well as an enhanced aero vehicle and the HCV.
The small launch vehicle will also be able to launch satellites into low Earth orbit.
The glider, or common aero vehicle, will have a payload capacity of one tonne and a range of 3,500 miles, while the enhanced common aero vehicle will be capable of a greater range and improved manoeuvrability.
It is likely that the small launch vehicle will be able to launch both these aircraft, which will be expendable.
The hypersonic cruise vehicle will be reusable, autonomous and take off from a conventional military runway to strike targets up to 10,500 miles away. It will be able to deliver bombs and cruise missiles weighing up to 5.4 tonnes to a chosen target.
Managed by the US Department of Defence’s DARPA, the project also involves military partners (the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Air Force Space Command and its Missile Systems Centre). The firms in the phase one negotiations include Orbital Sciences, Space Exploration Technologies and Andrews Space.