DARPA's Mach 20 Hypersonic Glider and Air Force's X-37B Space Plane Make Their Debuts

One system would enable hypersonic precision strikes around the world without warning, and the other might deliver space marines

X-37B Ready

Mr. X-37B, bring me a treat from spaceUSAF

Future space marines might commemorate yesterday as a historic moment, based on the coinciding launches of DARPA's hypersonic glider and an Air Force space plane. Both test vehicles could pave the way for new warfighter transports or weapons systems, the Ares Defense Blog reports.

DARPA's HTV-2 was first into the air, around 7 pm EDT. The hypersonic vehicle is designed to glide through the Earth's atmosphere at speeds 20 times greater than the speed of sound. The Santa Maria Times notes that several maneuvers were scheduled to test how HTV-2 handles during the hypersonic glide stage, before hurtling into the Pacific Ocean at more than 13,000 mph for a planned demise.

A future hypersonic platform could theoretically deliver precision strikes to targets around the world with "little or no advanced warning," as DARPA puts it. A second test is planned for 2011, based on the success of yesterday's sortie.

Barely an hour after the HTV-2 debut, the U.S. Air Force launched its X-37B space plane. That much-anticipated mission lofted the space plane -- powered by gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries -- into orbit for possibly as long as 270 days, according to the Ares Defense Blog.

Like DARPA, the Air Force has remained relatively tight-lipped about the exact purpose of such a space plane. But it's not hard to imagine what hypersonic weapons or a space plane might do for the future of U.S. military operations, as far as speed of deployment is concerned.