Written by By David Beasley, CNN
Three hypersonic rockets, each carrying seven military satellites, blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California Saturday, in the US military’s first demonstration of air-launched space weapons.
The Minuteman 3 HTV-2 air-launched missiles took off at 6:25 am PT (9:25 am ET) from two of the Air Force’s launch pads, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) said in a statement.
The tests took place over the Pacific Ocean between Vandenberg and Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is part of the Imperial Valley, according to the release.
The HTV-2 is a four-stage booster rocket designed to transport and deploy satellites, for operations worldwide. Its launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base was the first test of the HTV-2 at hypersonic speeds.
These hypersonic test rockets are specifically designed to fly in the open air, and instead of a fixed launch site, are sent to nearby Vandenberg by sea.
“With these five test launches, we have now improved the overall performance of these missiles by a factor of 6,000-fold,” Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, said in a statement.
At Mach 7, a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base will reach Mach 30 — which is roughly 930 kilometers (600 miles) per hour.
The test program also represents the world’s first test of a high-altitude, hypersonic glide vehicle, the NRO said in a statement. The HTV-2 is designed to reach up to an altitude of more than 30,000 kilometers (19,000 miles) before re-entering the atmosphere.
It’s the second operational test of the hypersonic flight vehicle system and the seventh test of the HTV-2 space vehicle system since its inception in 2014.
The three launches over the weekend will help validate air-launched space capabilities and advance the government’s efforts to use hypersonic technologies to improve missile defense and strategic communications, NRO said.
“The combination of space and air vehicles is key to hypersonic weapon systems, as it allows not only for cruise missile impact and attack, but also sharpening targeting choices with different missile threats and their speeds and geographies,” said NRO Director Thomas Honeycutt in a statement.