Print Story SR-3/XOV Blackstar Shutdown
By wiredog (Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 03:43:01 AM EST) Intel, Deep Black, Intelligence, SpacePlane (all tags)
This is interesting. Back when my Dad worked for DMA (later NIMA, now NGA) he subscribed to Aviation Week. It was referred to by insiders (like Dad) as "Aviation Leak" because it tended to find out things that insiders (like Dad) would rather it didn't.

Things like the SR-3/XOV Blackstar, which replaced the SR-71.

Come on, you didn't really think the US gave up the capabilities of the SR-71 without having something even better ready to go, did you?

I wonder what's replacing the Blackstar?

For those of you unwilling to read the article:

The SR-3 features:

A roughly 200-ft.-long, clipped-delta-winged planform resembling that of the North American Aviation XB-70 trisonic bomber.

Canards that extend from the forward fuselage. These lifting surfaces may sweep both fore and aft to compensate for large center-of-gravity changes after dropping the spaceplane, based on multiple sighting reports.

Large, outward-canted vertical tail surfaces at the clipped-delta's wingtips.

At least four engine exhaust ports, grouped as two well-separated banks on either side of the aircraft centerline.

Very loud engines. One other classified military aircraft may have used the same type of powerplant.

Operation at supersonic speeds and altitudes up to 90,000 ft.

During the system's development cycle, two types of spaceplane orbiters may have been flown. Both were a blended wing/fuselage lifting-body design, but differed in size. The smaller version was about 60-65 ft. long and may have been unmanned or carried a crew of two, some say. Industry engineers said this technology demonstrator was "a very successful program."

The larger orbiter is reportedly 97.5 ft. long, has a highly swept, blended wing/body planform and a short vertical fin. This bulky fin apparently doubles as a buried pylon for conformal carriage of the spaceplane beneath the large SR-3. The "Q-bay" for transporting an optics-system pallet or other payloads may be located aft of the cockpit, with payload doors on top of the fuselage.

Outboard sections of the spaceplane's wing/body cant slightly downward, possibly for shock-wave control and compression lift at high speeds while in the atmosphere, whether on ascent or reentry. The only visible control surfaces are flap- or drag-type panels on the wing's trailing edge, one section on each side of the stubby vertical fin. A relatively large, spade-shaped section forward of the cockpit--which gives the orbiter a "shark-nose" appearance--may provide some pitch stability, as well.

The orbiter's belly appears to be contoured with channels, riblets or "strakelets" that direct airflow to engine inlets and help dissipate aerodynamic heating. These shallow channels may direct air to a complex system of internal, advanced composite-material ducts, according to an engineer who says he helped build one version of the orbiter in the early 1990s. Air is directed to what is believed to be aerospike engines similar to those once planned for use on the NASA/Lockheed Martin X-33.

If you're wondering how the US Government paid for it:

time might also have been charged to the National Aero-Space Plane (NASP) and the Navy's A-12 fighter accounts, they say. Both multibillion-dollar programs were canceled with little but technology development gains to show for massive expenditures.

... Interestingly, after both Lockheed and Boeing pulled out of the NASP competition (or were "eliminated") in the 1980s, they may have collaborated to develop the two-stage-to-orbit Blackstar system under a highly classified "fast-track" program. However, many other contractors' "deep-black" teams probably also were involved in order to bring the nation's best expertise to bear on what must have been daunting technical challenges.

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SR-3/XOV Blackstar Shutdown | 33 comments (33 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
Interesting by jump the ladder (4.00 / 1) #1 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 03:50:04 AM EST
So that's how all the skunk works stuff gets funded by padding out convenential weapon system procurement programmes. Surely congress has something to say about this?

Glad to see that XB-70 design didn't go to waste.

Congress by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #10 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:34:08 AM EST
Some Congressmen, usually on the Intel and Defense committees, get briefed in on at least the broad outlines of what's going on.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
Skunk Works by Vulch (4.00 / 1) #13 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:48:00 AM EST

Strictly speaking this isn't a Skunk Works programme, it's a Black programme. The Lockheed Skunk Works was a research division with a reasonable budget and a lot of freedom from the standard corporate supervision, the idea being they could create working prototypes without having things committeed to death before they flew. Unfortunately they got noticed and corporate empire building reduced their flexibility as various mergers happened among the US aerospace companies.

Black programmes are developed with money siphoned off from other sources, the original Corona spy satellites were hidden under a couple of other budgets that "overran" somewhat.

[ Parent ]
Finish writing *then* hit Post by Vulch (2.00 / 0) #14 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:49:39 AM EST

And yes, Congress gets very interested when Black programmes come to light. See Stargate SG-1 for a fictional example.

[ Parent ]
And now the question is... by ObviousTroll (4.00 / 1) #2 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 03:53:29 AM EST
What replaced the SR-3/XOV?

We've always known that they had to have this capability. I mean if Yeager could take a Thud sub-orbital, when modern fighters already have a thrust-to-weight ratio greater than one, you know someone had to have tried turning Sanger's "skip bomber" idead into reality.

Something cool by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #11 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:35:19 AM EST
That probably flies higher, faster, and stealthier.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
Some /. posters suggested drones by georgeha (2.00 / 0) #22 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 05:39:27 AM EST
I imagine you could redo the U-2, minus the meatware, and make it cheaper, smaller and stealthier.

[ Parent ]
Based on the cost of the Blackbird flights by wumpus (2.00 / 0) #27 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:15:29 PM EST
You could fund a whole drone program (not by the DoD, of course) for the price of a single SR-71 flight.  You could probably lose 90% of your predators and still be cheaper than the blackstar.

I'm still wondering what happened to the Freewing Scorpion.  I suppose that when drones got red hot, its French connections became suddenly painful, and scaled composites was too busy flying into space.  These things happen.


[ Parent ]
Yeah, I recall some pondering on the blackbird by georgeha (2.00 / 0) #3 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 03:57:54 AM EST
mailing list (in the mid 90's when I time for mailing lists) about what replaced the Blackbird's capabilities when they decommissioned it.

I also recall talk of a hypersonic cryogenic wave rider that launched from a C5 at about the same time, but orbital is even better.

But.... by anonimouse (2.00 / 0) #4 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:21:08 AM EST
..whats the point? I mean the planned altitude of this plane and that of a satellite are not much different, so why not just use "traditional" satellite photography.

As I understood things, the Blackbird was decommissioned because there was little point in taking the minor risk of being shot down as satellite image resolution improved to the point where there is little difference to aerial photography. I would suspect that with atmospheric compensation techniques that are applied to look at the stars, satellite imaging is almost good enough to read newspapers on the ground nowadays

Girls come and go but a mortgage is for 25 years -- JtL
[ Parent ]
The article covered that by lm (4.00 / 1) #7 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:24:12 AM EST
Satellites are predictable in their orbits. An enemy that is aware of the satellite trajectory can pinpoint when they are under observation and when they are not. But something like an XOV can catch enemy installations unaware as they are unpredictable in if and when they fly over.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
Guess by DesiredUsername (4.00 / 1) #9 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:27:52 AM EST
Because a "traditional" satellite is perfectly predictable whereas a plane can swing around for another look in secret.

Now accepting suggestions for a new sigline
[ Parent ]
the Blackbird was decommissioned by wiredog (2.00 / 0) #12 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:40:50 AM EST
Wow. You fell for that cover story, didn't you? Not that you were alone. The cover story for the Blackstar shutdown is "budget".

As DU and lm pointed out, satellites are in predictable orbits, which limit their utility.

Several years ago I ran the numbers for the Hubble Space Telescope to find out what the ground resolution would be if it was in a 100 mile orbit, pointing downwards. I got about 5 CM theoretical, which leaves out the loss of resolution caused by that pesky atmosphere. Imaging satellites probably haven't improved much, if at all, because they have size limitations that ground based telescopes don't.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
Mirror, Mirror by Vulch (2.00 / 0) #16 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:53:57 AM EST

Among the reasons for the problem with the Hubble mirror is that the research team weren't allowed access to the factory making it so had to rely on test reports produced without their overview. The Hubble mirror was the largest that could be fitted into a shuttle payload bay. The standard US reconnaisance satellite at the time had also been designed to fit into a shuttle payload bay...

[ Parent ]
I saw the Blackbird up close and personal by lm (4.00 / 2) #5 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:22:01 AM EST
It remains my favorite aircraft of all time.

A friend of mine was trying to tell me about the SR-3 a couple of weeks ago and I didn't believe him. He was talking about a fighter jet, though, rather than a reconnaisance plane. I remain dubious that a jet could go to orbit, return to earth and still have enough fuel left over to be useful as a fighter. Expendable drones, maybe. Reconnaisance, certainly. But a manned fighter?

I'm also waiting for the next logical step, space carriers which can be launhed into orbit, holding several fighters or small bombers that can be deployed upon reentry. Instant squadron, anywhere in the world in fifteen minutes.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
Aviation Leak by ana (4.00 / 1) #6 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:22:42 AM EST
It's also useful for those on the inside, to find out what they can talk about.

Can you introspect out loud? --CRwM

Also, comma, by ana (2.00 / 0) #15 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:52:29 AM EST
really really cool airplanes.

Can you introspect out loud? --CRwM

[ Parent ]
technically, no. by garlic (2.00 / 0) #28 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 07:01:18 PM EST
secret information leaked by another source does not allow you to discuss said secret information.

[ Parent ]
WIPO: Mustang with Merlin Engine by anonimouse (2.00 / 0) #8 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:24:18 AM EST

Girls come and go but a mortgage is for 25 years -- JtL
Justification by anonimouse (2.00 / 0) #32 Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 12:36:04 AM EST
The P51-D Mustang effectively ended the war for the Germans, as it made daylight bombing and continula fighter raiding over German soil a practical proposition.

Also, the relatively spacious bubble view cockpit set the standard for fighter aircract pilots environment ever since.

Girls come and go but a mortgage is for 25 years -- JtL
[ Parent ]
WIPO by yicky yacky (2.00 / 0) #17 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:59:45 AM EST

The 'Spitfire' has such a firm hold over the post-war UKian consciousness, and is regarded by many with such warmth and fondness that it will possibly get many Brit votes (it got mine) even if it hasn't actually got the coolest name. Honourable mentions have to go to the A-10's ninety-five nicknames and ye olde Vulcan bomber.

Here's a good list of aircraft nicks, some of which are very funny ("Flying Prostitute?")

Vacuity abhors a vacuum.
WIPO by Breaker (4.00 / 1) #18 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 05:03:04 AM EST
Sopwith Camel
Sea Vixen

WIPO: Black Widow by georgeha (2.00 / 0) #19 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 05:03:56 AM EST
Such a cool plane to have been commissioned late in WWII.

Blackbird by nebbish (2.00 / 0) #20 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 05:17:56 AM EST
Such a beautiful plane, up there with the Vulcan bomber and the Spitfire in terms of design.

It's political correctness gone mad!

Lockheed builds 'em pretty by wiredog (4.00 / 1) #23 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 05:47:17 AM EST
Or at least cool looking. The Blackbird, U-2, P-38, F-117. All Lockheed products.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
I think Northop's by garlic (2.00 / 0) #29 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 07:07:11 PM EST
Yb-49 and b-2 comparison's are pretty cool. I'm also pretty impressed with the RQ-4, which seems like one of the things replacing the SR-71's functionality

[ Parent ]
rq-4 by garlic (2.00 / 0) #31 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 08:05:57 PM EST
WIPO: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by DesiredUsername (2.00 / 0) #21 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 05:19:37 AM EST

Now accepting suggestions for a new sigline
WIPO: One and a Half Strutter by cam (2.00 / 0) #24 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 06:25:16 AM EST
from the Sopwith stable. Cool article.

Freedom, liberty, equity and an Australian Republic

When someone says two stage to orbit... by Gully Foyle (2.00 / 0) #25 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 06:34:55 AM EST
... they don't usually mean that the first stage is an air breathing jet capable of a mere mach 3. That doesn't buy you much over a ssto design, and those are theoretically marginal at best. Current satellite launchers that are air-dropped are still staged, and they don't have to include stuff like tps, wings, landing gear or life support.

The mention of a 'fuel breakthrough' 15 years ago also seems a little suspect. Boron compounds have been a favourite of net-kooks for ages, since they can provide slightly higher isp than other comparable fuels. Unfortunately, they're also incredibly toxic (they'll kill you in minutes on contact with the skin). Any breakthrough here would be to do with reducing the toxicity, or finding better ways to work with the substance. Admittedly, I don't know enough chemistry to know what's possible.

I guess it's possible that it could be an air-dropped two-stage rocketplane, but if you're going for a manned orbiter, and you need multiple rocket stages anyway, then it's far less complicated to go from the ground. I'd be surprised to find that this story is accurate; it reads more like a wish list to me. Would be cool though.

Boron gel by Vulch (2.00 / 0) #26 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 08:38:25 AM EST

Or apparently most of the gel fuels that have been tried are great as long as you don't switch the engine off. As soon as you stop pumping it through, what's left in the injectors bakes solid and has to be drilled out if you want to use the engine again.

Some reliable analysts who have read the article reckon that one cause of cancellation is that operationally it makes the shuttle look good. The upper stage will need its engines replacing after each flight, the toxicity of the fuel makes ground handling a nightmare and the carrier is probably cranky. There's a reason only two XB-70s were built.

[ Parent ]
Thanks. by Gully Foyle (2.00 / 0) #33 Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 01:55:58 AM EST
I wasn't aware of those problems with gel fuels. That makes it still less likely that they'd go with a (complicated, expensive) aerospike engine. They're launching from 100,000 feet, so they don't gain much from it, and as you mention, they'd have to replace the thing every time. Seems odd.

Who are the analysts you mention? I'd be very interested in seeing a thorough examination of the article. It set off some of my kook-alarms, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong.

[ Parent ]
heritage pictures by garlic (2.00 / 0) #30 Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 08:05:14 PM EST
this article made me go to to check out photos again. Besides doggles (check mns' last diary) I found heritage flight photos, which are pretty cool.

SR-3/XOV Blackstar Shutdown | 33 comments (33 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback