Probably the autonomous winged prototype they tested twice before.
Sounds like the early testbed for a pilot-less re-usable mothership/launcher. This article says launch #2 was an 8 foot long testbed with a 6 foot wingspan that was about 1/5 scale, making the full shot vehicle about 40 feet long with a 30 foot wingspan.
The self-propelled vehicle was flown last December from the same launch area — a test effort that is being done in partnership with UP Aerospace of Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
Simpson said the name of the project, as well as the craft's propulsion system remains under wraps at this time. The vehicle flown in December and now this month is 8 feet (2.4 meters) long with a wingspan of about 6 feet (1.8 meters), he noted.
Several new test objectives were involved in the vehicle's second flight, specifically in the arena of autonomous flight and avionics, Simpson said.
"This is a fully autonomous vehicle. We're working the autonomous liftoff, control and landing aspects of the vehicle," Simpson explained. When the craft departs its launch rail, there's no human in the loop, with the flight hardware sensing its environment, including winds, to guide itself on a pre-loaded trajectory to touchdown.
For this experimental launch, Spaceport America officials had prepared a dirt landing location. But once the rocket plane diverted from its intended path, Simpson said, it plopped down about one-half mile down range — within spaceport grounds.
"We have another vehicle that's nearly ready to go. We'll learn from Tuesday's flight and take corrective actions," Simpson said. "Although we didn't like the end result, we learned a lot and will crank that into the next flight and keep going – that's my message."
Flies like a rocket, lands like a plane
Simpson said that the vehicle flies like a rocket but lands like a plane. The roughly one-fifth scale rocket plane is being flown to evaluate techniques and procedures for responsiveness to quick launch, ease of operations, and low cost access to space.
Regarding the scaling up of the craft, Simpson said that he and his team want to take one more step by the end of next year. "The philosophy is to test a little, fly a little...and buy down the risk" in a venture to address the nation's needs for responsive, low-cost access to space, he said.
Ultimately, the autonomously controlled, sub-scale unpiloted space plane project is intended to lead to the fielding of a larger-scale system, one that lowers the price tag of lofting satellites into Earth orbit.
By Leonard David
SPACE.com’s Space Insider Columnist
posted: 05 May 2010
04:17 pm ET
LAS CRUCES, New Mexico – A small rocket carrying student experiments and the cremated remains of 21 people successfully launched on a memorial suborbital spaceflight Tuesday and landed smoothly in New Mexico.
The early morning launch of the UP Aerospace SpaceLoft XL rocket was staged from Spaceport America – a remote site outside Upham, New Mexico that is now a scene of fast-paced construction. Spaceport America is tagged as the first purpose-built commercial space facility.
The mission was primarily aimed at flying a suite of student-built experiments dubbed the New Mexico Second Annual Education Launch. The project, sponsored by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium at New Mexico State University, included high school, college and university investigations from across the state.