May 26, 2024

California startup Stratolaunch completed the first powered flight of its Talon-A hypersonic vehicle as it works to develop a reusable version that’s capable of carrying science payloads and flying them at five times the speed of sound.

The company’s massive aircraft, named Roc, launched on Saturday from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California while carrying TA-1 in its belly. The plane then released the hypersonic vehicle at an altitude of around 35,000 feet (10,668 meters), from where it sped its way through the skies at speeds approaching Mach 5, according to Stratolaunch.

“While I can’t share the specific altitude and speed TA-1 reached due to proprietary agreements with our customers, we are pleased to share that in addition to meeting all primary and customer objectives of the flight, we reached high supersonic speeds approaching Mach 5 and collected a great amount of data at an incredible value to our customers,” Zachary Krevor, president and CEO of Stratolaunch, said in a statement.

The company will use the data towards its upcoming flight of TA-2, a reusable version of the hypersonic vehicle. TA-2’s first flight is scheduled for later this year. Future versions of Talon-A vehicles will be rocket-powered and capable of carrying customizable payloads at hypersonic speeds. The company is also planning to develop a larger hypersonic vehicle, dubbed Talon-Z, and a spaceplane nicknamed Black Ice that would carry payloads — and possibly passengers — to Earth orbit.

Stratolaunch was founded in 2011 with the goal of using Roc, the largest airplane ever built, to launch the Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket into space (similar to how Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo currently works). The company then switched gears following its founder Paul Allen’s death in 2018, focusing on developing, deploying, and flying hypersonic vehicles instead.

In December 2021, Stratolaunch announced a contract with the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to provide a testbed for developing defense strategies against hypersonic threats. Stratolaunch is seeking to mimic these missile threats with its hypersonic vehicles, which fly at higher altitudes and high speeds, making it harder to issue warnings prior to an attack.

The first powered test flight of TA-1 is a major milestone for Stratolaunch as it continues to develop its hypersonic vehicles. “Our goal with this flight was to continue our risk reduction approach for TA-2’s first reusable flight,” Krevor said. “We are excited to review the data from today’s test and use it as we plan our next steps toward TA-2’s first flight later this year.”

A version of this story originally appeared on Gizmodo.

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