Work starts on hypersonic weapons vehicle

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Web site

Officials at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force announced today that nine contractors have started work on a hypersonic vehicle for attacking targets thousands of miles from the United States.

The project is part of the Force Application and Launch from the Continental United States (FALCON) program.

DARPA and Air Force officials are developing concepts to create a vehicle that will eventually be able to fly in low Earth orbit at speeds faster than sound to deliver a payload of munitions up to 9,000 nautical miles, about 10,350 miles. Initially, the system will be boosted into a low orbit using rockets and the early capability is to be able to deliver munitions on a target 3,000 nautical miles, about 3,450 miles, away. The near term goals are set for 2010 and the longer-term goals are for 2025.

FALCON is in the conceptual design phase. The second task in the project, on which three contractors are working, involves developing a hypsersonic weapon system capable of taking off from a standard military runway and striking targets around the globe in hours. The second task also involves developing an unpowered, maneuverable, hypersonic glide vehicle capable of carrying a payload of 1,000 pounds.

The FALCON program involves building a low-cost rocket booster to meet these requirements and demonstrate its capability in a series of flight tests culminating with the launch of an operable payload. Eventually, officials hope to have a reusable, hypersonic aircraft capable of delivering 12,000 pounds of payload to a target 9,000 nautical miles from the United States in less than two hours.

The Task 1 contractors from the first phase of the project will receive between $350,000 and $540,000 for their efforts. Task 2 contracts, also included in phase 1, will receive between $1.2 million and $1.5 million. After the first phase is completed, DARPA and Air Force officials will determine whether or not to proceed to the second phase, which is a 36-month design and development phase.

Neither the Air Force nor DARPA released the names of the 12 companies working on the two tasks.

The Marines are working on a similar system called the Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion (SUSTAIN) manned vehicle, which has a target delivery date of 2025 and is meant to deploy Marines anywhere around the globe in two hours without violating the airspace of countries along the way.

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