Successor to the SR-71 Blackbird is on the Horizon

Skunk Works, the semi-top secret military aircraft development arm of Lockheed Martin, is looking into a follow-up to its infamous SR-71 Blackbird. The super-fast Mach 3 spy plane was used to run high-altitude surveillance on the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Concepts for the SR-72 were shown in Aviation Week's look at the new project. This next-gen plane would be designed to break Mach 6, or six times the speed of sound. Much of the project will rely on data collected from the HTV-2 and HTV-1 missions DARPA conducted back in 2010 and 2011. Those designs used scramjets which are specialized engines designed to operate up to Mach 24 (which isn't too far from the speeds many spacecraft hit).

Hypersonic flight, as one might imagine, is fraught with complications. The original SR-71 was engineered with flexible skin, because at Mach 3 its frame hit temperatures hot enough to melt lead. Creating materials that are strong enough to support the craft, light enough for flight, and heat-resistant enough that the whole thing doesn't burn up isn't easy.

During trans-sonic flight, typically between Mach .8 and 1.2, airflow near the plane is unstable, with some of it breaking the sound barrier and some of it remaining a fair bit below that. Past Mach 1.2, almost all of the air is compressed into a single shockwave surrounding the craft. As those speeds begin to tick up, however, critical parts that keep the plane in control need to be able to withstand extreme forces. Add some heat and the entire frame faces some tough engineering goals.

Despite the challenges, Lockheed is confident they'll have a finished plane soon, perhaps as early as 2018.

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  • Darkk
    The problem with satellites is technology. Once they are launched it's expected to stay in orbit for years and during that time new technologies are created. So it's easier to retrofit a plane on the ground than it is in space.
    11
  • Lord_Kitty
    When I saw the title, I thought you were replacing the forum moderator.
    10
  • Other Comments
  • lancelot123
    >Implying something better doesn't already exist
    1
  • secolliyn
    Ya i like that they are "saying" we are working on it now when the RS-71(the only reason it called the SR-71 was because a president couldn't read a teleprompter) was developed back in the 60's yet we are to believe that they are just starting work on it when the SR-71 was decommissioned in 1998 it was not really that popular mainly because satellites did much of the work for a much longer time frame and over time it was more cost effective im not sure what this "NEW" plane will do to make it more useful than the SR-71 was when you look at the stats published it only few around 101 sorties in it's 35 year lifetime for how many millions of dollars to keep it operational?
    -3
  • Darkk
    The problem with satellites is technology. Once they are launched it's expected to stay in orbit for years and during that time new technologies are created. So it's easier to retrofit a plane on the ground than it is in space.
    11