A trio of hush-hush rocket launches from a NASA space center in Virginia this week tested advanced hypersonic weapons technology for the U.S. military, Navy officials revealed Friday (Oct. 22).
The weapons tests were carried out across three small sounding rocket launches from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. The space center announced the launches ahead of time but shared little about their nature aside from the fact that they were for the U.S. Department of Defense.
On Friday, NASA and the U.S. Navy revealed that the launches were part of the High Operational Tempo for Hypersonics test program to evaluate new technologies for hypersonic weapons that can travel faster than five times the speed of sound.
"The test will be used to inform the development of the Navy's Conventional Prompt Strike and the Army's Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon offensive hypersonic strike capability," NASA officials wrote in a statement Friday.
The Navy's Conventional Prompt Strike program aims to develop a system that would allow it to deploy a non-nuclear hypersonic missile that "will enable precise and timely strike capability in contested environments," according a project summary. It consists of a "hypersonic glide body that travels to target at hypersonic speed and booster that launches the glide body into initial flight," the summary states.
The U.S. Army's Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon program aims to develop a booster-launched hypersonic projectile at speeds of up to 17 times the speed of sound to reach targets at least 1,725 miles (2,776 kilometers) away, according to Popular Mechanics, which cited an Army spokesperson. It is designed to be launched from transporter/erector/launcher trucks that can carry two missiles each, Popular Mechanics reported.
Sandia National Laboratories carried out the triple-launch hypersonic tests for the Navy and Army.
"This test demonstrated advanced hypersonic technologies, capabilities, and prototype systems in a realistic operating environment," the Navy wrote in its own statement, adding that the tests fill a gap between ground tests and full-system demonstrations. "These launches allow for frequent and regular flight testing opportunities to support rapid maturation of offensive and defensive hypersonic technologies."
Hypersonic weapons are widely considered to be the next step in weapons technology because of their mind-boggling speed, which allows them greater range and maneuverability, making them harder track and intercept than intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The U.S. military has performed several hypersonic weapons test launches in recent years to match potential threats from other hypersonic programs under development by China and Russia. In addition to the Navy and Army programs, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing a hypersonic intercept vehicle called "Glide Breaker" with contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne.
In August, China reportedly launched a successful hypersonic weapons test using a Long March rocket as its booster, according to the Financial Times, although China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied it was a weapons test, stating through a spokesperson that it was a reusable spacecraft test.
Last month, North Korea claimed to have tested its own hypersonic missile, called the Hwasong-8, but outside experts have expressed skepticism that the vehicle was fast enough to achieve hypersonic speeds.