Boosting hypersonic research capabilities was at the heart of a White Sands, New Mexico-based naval detachment’s latest sounding rocket launch with the French military.
The high-profile June 26 mission in Biscarrosse, France, was the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD) detachment’s first successful flight of a new three-stage rocket configuration and a new type of nose cone, and it propelled a French payload into a hypersonic velocity for testing.
Stakes were high for White Sands Detachment’s third sounding rocket mission in Biscarrosse, FS-1, due to the advanced equipment on board and the attention of high-ranking French officials. Also, in the previous mission, FS-0, the rocket suffered a power system failure after it launched, which added to the pressure for a successful flight with FS-1.
“After FS-0, we needed a home run, and this was it,” said Aaron Cowman, White Sands Detachment’s branch manager for applied environments, integration and testing.
The successful FS-1 rocket flight proved the viability of a Terrier-Oriole-Oriole motor configuration and a separating shroud nose cone, which enclosed a new French hypersonic glider before it soared off on its own during the rocket’s descent.
The mission was the third rocket launch in an ongoing collaboration between White Sands Detachment and the France Ministry of Armed Forces.
The detachment and its contractors — Corvid Technologies LLC, Kratos Defense and Rocket Support Services Inc., and Peraton Inc. — provided “cradle-to-splash support” for the complex sounding rocket, according to Troy Gammill, chief engineer for White Sands Detachment.
“There were several new technologies developed and flown, including a new shroud design, revised payload ordnance with backup timers, revised attitude control system and a revised ground firing line,” Gammill said.
The result of the diverse team members’ efforts, Gammill added, was “a very successful mission.”
Blasting off in Biscarrosse
Building and blasting off sounding rockets into space is the longest-running mission for White Sands Detachment, which is based at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico but works on missions around the world.
White Sands Detachment’s deep experience with the research-oriented rockets led to the ongoing project in France. In early 2020, the NSWC PHD detachment began helping the country’s Ministry of Armed Forces establish its own sounding rocket program at a military site in Biscarrosse, a town on the Bay of Biscay in southwestern France.
In the first phase of the project, the White Sands team helped stand up a state-of-the-art launch complex in Biscarrosse. That includes a 50K launcher, which can support several rocket configurations with a maximum design load of 50,000 pounds.
The first flight from the Biscarrosse facility was a Terrier-Oriole two-stage sounding rocket dubbed Pathfinder. The rocket soared into space during the successful October 2021 tracking exercise and transmitted telemetry data back to range personnel before splashing down into the ocean.
The second flight, FS-0, in June 2022 was White Sands Detachment’s first effort with a three-stage Terrier-Oriole-Oriole motor configuration. The rocket launched successfully from the Biscarrosse facility, but when the second-stage Oriole motor separated from the third-stage Oriole, an active circuit was exposed to the rocket plume, which fused wires together and caused an electrical short.
“The short caused a power system failure for the whole avionics system,” Cowman said, referring to the rocket’s aviation electronics. “That prevented most of the subsystems on the vehicle from working, so it was largely considered a failed flight.”
Following an investigation, the White Sands team incorporated corrections into the design of FS-1 — the next attempt with a Terrier-Oriole-Oriole rocket.
Preparing the payload
Leading up to the FS-1 launch, the White Sands suborbital vehicles team conducted system-level integration testing on the vehicle in facilities at White Sands Missile Range. The testing focused on the payload — everything above the motor stack such as the avionics, the attitude controls that adjust the rocket’s orientation, and the nose cone.
“We make sure that all of the subsystems come together as one system, electrically and mechanically, and that they will function in flight,” Cowman said.
The testing covered everything from electrical systems to workmanship, mass properties measurement and center of gravity. In an Army facility at White Sands, the team assessed the payload on a vibration table and a spin balance table.
At the tip of the FS-1 vehicle was a new nose cone from defense contractor Peraton in Princess Anne, Maryland. The clamshell-style shroud assembly is designed to protect the experimental device — in this case, the French hypersonic glider — as the rocket soars out of the atmosphere and into space. Before apogee — the highest point in the rocket’s trajectory — the nose cone shroud breaks away.
“The two shroud halves separate, exposing the French experiment so it can start gathering data and preparing for its ultimate jettisoning,” Cowman explained.
In another change after the FS-0 mission, the White Sands team updated its inspection procedures for the various stages of building the next rocket.
After the integration testing at White Sands, the rocket and about 30 team members traveled to Biscarrosse to execute the FS-1 mission in June.
FS-1 launched June 26, two days ahead of schedule. On that day, Cowman’s role switched from vehicle manager to test conductor, while White Sands Detachment’s Brandon Snyder served as assistant test conductor.
A French counterpart to Cowman oversaw the experiment enclosed in the nose cone — a hypersonic glider called VMaX, which French aerospace company ArianeGroup developed for the Ministry of Armed Forces’ General Directorate of Armaments, known as the DGA. The glider’s name stands for the French equivalent of “experimental maneuvering vehicle.”
As that name indicates, hypersonic gliders can maneuver in flight while traveling at hypersonic velocities, which start around 3,800 mph, making them much harder to intercept than conventional ballistic missiles, as those fly in an arcing trajectory similar to a football thrown across a field.
With the VMaX glider shrouded in the nose cone, the three-stage FS-1 rocket launched from Biscarrosse into the night sky around 10 p.m. The rocket motors propelled the payload to an altitude that was higher than expected, but still within the French requirements.
Another requirement concerned the operation of the nose cone shroud, which separated as planned to uncover the VMaX glider around the apogee of the flight in space. As the rocket descended, it jettisoned the glider at a hypersonic velocity.
Cowman said that “all events, maneuvers and functions of the vehicle performed as expected,” meeting the DGA’s requirements.
“The French were very appreciative of everything we accomplished,” Cowman said. “They had some high-ranking people from their government paying attention to this one.”
While a more detailed post-flight performance report was still in the works, the FS-1 mission has already been hailed a success — and has captured many news headlines.
The French Ministry of Armed Forces issued a press release announcing the successful first flight of the VMaX hypersonic glider, which generated widespread media coverage.
French news outlet Le Monde quoted Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu as calling the flight “a new milestone on the road to France’s mastery of hypervelocity.”
The FS-1 mission also advanced White Sands Detachment’s own hypersonic testing capabilities, according to Cowman.
“The Terrier-Oriole-Oriole rocket motor configuration has proven to be viable in the growing number of our options for hypersonic research,” he said.
Moreover, the lessons learned and other experiences from the previous mission — including integrating a three-stage vehicle with the DGA and ArianeGroup — played a key role in the recent FS-1 success, Cowman added.
“Everyone stayed positive and focused on what we learned from FS-0, and all of that paved the way to make FS-1 a lot smoother than it would have been (otherwise),” he said.
The White Sands team members’ efforts on FS-1 earned kudos from their French partners, including Pierrick Bouazza, flight test project manager with the DGA.
“All the work done by the teams of the U.S. Navy and its partners, whether at White Sands Missile Range or Biscarrosse, to allow the success of this project was greatly appreciated, both at the working level and by our hierarchy,” Bouazza said. “I can’t wait for us to work together on new projects.”
The next phase in the trans-Atlantic partnership will focus on boosting training for both French and American personnel.
Education and training phase
The key components of White Sands Detachment’s agreement with the Ministry of Armed Forces were developing the launch site in Biscarrosse, building rocket vehicles and training French personnel.
With three launches under their belt, the partners will now focus on the educational piece. That will include sounding rocket classes and hands-on training both in Biscarrosse and White Sands. Classes will cover technical topics like flight performance, modeling and structural analysis.
The effort will benefit White Sands Detachment in a couple of ways, Cowman said. For one, the detachment will improve its suborbital vehicles training program. Also, newer White Sands team members will be able to sit in on the classes along with French personnel.
“It will be mutually beneficial moving forward,” Cowman said. “We’ll be training their personnel and ours further.”