Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

Successor to the SR-71 Blackbird is on the Horizon

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 24 comments
Tags :

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.

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.

Display 24 Comments.
This thread is closed for comments
Top Comments
  • 10 Hide
    Darkk , November 6, 2013 10:58 PM
    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.
Other Comments
  • 1 Hide
    lancelot123 , November 6, 2013 10:21 PM
    >Implying something better doesn't already exist
  • -2 Hide
    secolliyn , November 6, 2013 10:44 PM
    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?
  • 10 Hide
    Darkk , November 6, 2013 10:58 PM
    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.
  • 7 Hide
    griptwister , November 6, 2013 11:04 PM
    I thought they were talking about the SR 71 Blackbird in the forums being replaced. Lol, luckily it's just an aircraft.
  • 0 Hide
    anort3 , November 6, 2013 11:04 PM
    Rumors have had an aircraft called the Aurora flying since the late 80s. No concrete proof of it exists but there is evidence based on everything from seismograph readings to photos to audio recordings. It is or was powered by scramjets and could fly at mach 4 to 5.
  • 0 Hide
    alchemy69 , November 6, 2013 11:20 PM
    There goes another $10 billion in government contracts for something that may never appear and if it does it will already be outdated by the time it gets off the ground. Good to know there's nothing more important to spend out taxes on.
  • 4 Hide
    fonzy , November 6, 2013 11:48 PM
    Exactly anort3, and I bet the Aurora is probably retired and replaced by something far better. I think all the flying saucers and black triangles people have been seeing for the last 40+ years are ours too.
  • 7 Hide
    SuperVeloce , November 7, 2013 12:06 AM
    "its infamous SR-71 Blackbird"... wait what? Despite of some obvious drawbacks (running costs), it is far from infamous.
  • 9 Hide
    Lord_Kitty , November 7, 2013 12:34 AM
    When I saw the title, I thought you were replacing the forum moderator.
  • 1 Hide
    Novuake , November 7, 2013 2:29 AM
    Quote:
    When I saw the title, I thought you were replacing the forum moderator.


    :lol: 

    Who is gonna prowl the PSU section then?
    None as diligent and ubbrupt as him.
  • 0 Hide
    boju , November 7, 2013 3:00 AM
    The Russian Military during Blackbird's prime when they saw the pace the blimp was moving on their radar screens, they knew exactly what it was and simply wouldn't bother scrounging air planes it was so fast...Be long gone from any closest air craft they'd have still on the ground or in the air.

    The successor is to be twice as fast. D:

    oh and i thought that also about Tom's own SR-71 Blackbird as well :D 



  • 0 Hide
    jobadiah , November 7, 2013 5:27 AM
    This is not really a successor to the SR-71. We have satellites and global hawks for the surveillance mission. An another article I read on it says it is intended as an unmanned hypersonic strike aircraft with the capability to carry hypersonic missiles.

    A few notes on hypersonics. First, the scramjet technology needed is fairly new. A scramjet is a ramjet except for the flow never slows down enough to be subsonic, thus it experiences Supersonic Combustion (thus the SCramjet). Keeping a flame lit at supersonic flow speeds is a challenge. A common problem with scramjet engines has been flame out. The US Air Force and DARPA have been doing a lot of research and have gotten one of their test vehicles to burn its entire fuel supply successfully, so they are finding solutions.

    As for the aircraft itself, traveling at mach 5 or 6 generates a ton of heat. A typical aluminum aircraft would melt. The SR-71 was made from Titanium. Titanium is both heavier and more expensive than aluminum though. I expect the skin will be made of some carbon-carbon composite similar to the "low" temperature areas of the space shuttle. The lack of the pilot probably stems from the issue of keeping him from cooking by sustaining mach 5 or 6 for several hours. Without some elaborate cockpit cooling scheme, it would get quiet toasty in there.

    -Aeronautical Engineering master's student
  • 2 Hide
    bambiboom , November 7, 2013 6:19 AM
    Gentlemen?,

    The SR-71 is in my view one of the greatest engineering objects in history > of historic technology, engineering and implementation precision, and an unrivaled aesthetic in it's beauty of fearsomeness.

    An important component in making the SR-71 was to replace the U-2 as being capable of flight high and fast enough to be immune to surface to air missiles. As we have seen with the failure of SDI, "Star Wars" systems, - and even the much lower than advertised success of the Patriot system- the difficulty of "shooting a bullet with a bullet", the SR-72 could have some relevant surveillance mission, and be survivable.

    But there are a lot of problems.

    That system would have to be in a state of constant deployment. Current scramjet systems like the X51A are launched from under B-52 wings and need a rocket stage to achieve the engine induction rates- and so far the longest flight time is under two minutes. A ground-launched system would be impossibly heavy. An X51a is about 1900kg (4,000lbs) The SR-72 image shown must be an altered attempt at corporate disinformation- the drag, engine placement and induction shapes ( you don't just cut the bottoms out of glued together recycling bins) and missing components- such as ISR components and missile mountings, the control surfaces size, wing aspect ratio and shape hardly rise to the design realism of sci-fi movie production design. If this system is to deliver missiles, where do they come out or off of? You're not going to open doors at Mach X. and the shape of the missiles would have to almost integral to the aircraft and also be hypersonic waveriders, i.e., you'd have to design the missiles as part of the aircraft and weaponry would have to be symmetrically deployed. The weight to power ratio needed to achieve the nominal acceleration rate to start the scram jet means that it could hardly have fuel for ten or so minutes flight- although you can go a long way in ten minutes at 5km per second- and the payload limitations would prohibit a manned system- it might have the capacity for a couple of stripped down camera-phones. On that subject, the state of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) devices at the advertised speeds is not encouraging. Really, it seems to me that cruise missles should be as accurate and deliver a substantially greater payload. The article touches - but doesn't emphasize the extremity of thermal dissipation problems- think "Shuttle" in that degree. I, probably like most here, only occasionally work on hypersonic design, but even to the casual eye, the fluffy/draggy shape, with tall, deep vertical stabilizer and wide wings don't appear to me to represent serious consideration, or, more likely, simply have to hide the neat stuff. Still, if that rendering represents the state of the design, it's not going to be ready in 2018.

    As this is a computer forum, I'd be interested to learn what visualization programs and computer systems Lockheed used. I'm guessing Sketchup 8 and Maxwell rendering on Dell Precision T3400's. Lockheed is welcome to come over to my house if they'd like to try Solidworks and V-Ray.

    The other problem and this has been mentioned in other comments is what the SR-72 could really accomplish. The public doesn't know how many surveillance-capable satellites exist, the amazing resolution-day and night, and how surprisingly quickly they can be retargetted. NORAD satellites don't have as much to do as they did during the Cold War and perhaps they could be on loan for border security. As well,what satellites can't do, the popular drone systems do reasonably well, and wouldn't cost $3.5B each,...

    By the way, note to dedicated gamers, Boeing is looking for trainee drone pilots!

    I suspect that there are those in the DOD with great expectations of the SR-72 system use, and it could produce valuable technology for near-space systems, but unless the reveal is deliberately obfuscated, I'm not reading or seeing anything that suggests much seriousness. It is of course, no secret that to the degree they were serious, so to the same degree would they be secret.

    Still, if Lockheed can be a bit more creative and gets it to work, the US would have an immensely impressively expensive and nearly useful status symbol.

    But please, if the SR-72 is a multi-$Billion billboard, Lockheed, might at least give it some visual excitement. The SR-71 was an authentic work of art,...

    BambiBoom

    PS> Lockheed Reminiscences > I've poked fun a bit at them, but Lockheed is an amazing company, of historical significance, and I always follow their design. Along with everyone else, I stood around and gaped at the F-117 at it's first appearance at the Van Nuys air show. A very strange device. Surprising how small it seems compared to how amazingly large is an F-22.

    For years my office was down the street from their big Calabasas, CA office complex, but then they downsize-shipped everyone off to I think Bethesda, and the ill-fated building turned into Countrywide until the mortgage detonation, and then again it became Bank of America corporate. I often wished I could've dropped in and seen what was on the boards, but I think that was corporate and the fun stuff was out of town at the Skunk Works- over which I once enjoyed a low level helicopter flight.
  • 0 Hide
    Gulli , November 7, 2013 6:31 AM
    Quote:
    This is not really a successor to the SR-71. We have satellites and global hawks for the surveillance mission. An another article I read on it says it is intended as an unmanned hypersonic strike aircraft with the capability to carry hypersonic missiles.


    Yeah probably. No plane can best modern spy satellites, but having something that can go where ordinary drones (UAVs) can't go might just be what the US military wants. The plane might be used for assassinations of people who can detect ordinary drones but not this new plane, or to scare other countries (the plane can hit a valuable target anywhere because it probably cannot be intercepted, though its missiles might be), even if they see it coming on their radars. Still, whether that's worth the billions of dollars this program is no doubt going to cost is doubtful, on the bright side the technology can later be applied for civilian purposes, years earlier than if it was left up to the private sector to do the research.
  • 0 Hide
    TeraMedia , November 7, 2013 6:46 AM
    Quote:
    The original SR-71 was engineered with flexible skin, because at Mach 3 its frame hit temperatures hot enough to melt lead.


    Or more importantly, because the temperature caused the plane to expand in length by several inches during high-speed flight, necessitating a design that could support such changes in length and shape.

    @anort3: I still have a copy of AviationWeek that talked about the Aurora back around 1990, including discussions about PWDEs and other exotic propulsion systems, sonic booms, and ATC radio chatter.

    More likely than this story is that they have something going Mach 5-6 already, and either want to improve upon the design, or create some other technology but have the funding appear to be "legitimate" instead of black.

    I don't know how much benefit there is to manning these craft (air- ? space- ?) anymore. At speed, they just try to go straight and a computer can do that better than a person. If a drone or RC craft is capable of mid-air fueling, landing, takeoff and navigation, then there is little benefit and great cost to putting in a cockpit that is human-hospitable, and controls that are human-friendly. People are big and have a lot of physiological constraints. Computers are far more durable and flexible - except of course when it comes to thinking.
  • 0 Hide
    acadia11 , November 7, 2013 7:18 AM
    Quote:
    There goes another $10 billion in government contracts for something that may never appear and if it does it will already be outdated by the time it gets off the ground. Good to know there's nothing more important to spend out taxes on.


    So, what, the government spends that means someone is getting a paycheck. Someone getting a paycheck is buying goods ... so htat means what ... you might be getting a paycheck. Shut the f'up already it's not about who spends money, it's a cycle, "I buy you make money, you buy I make money." Everything else, is non-sensical ideology.

  • 0 Hide
    ram1009 , November 7, 2013 7:20 AM
    All they're doing is taking pictures. I don't see why satellites wouldn't do a better job & cheaper.
  • 0 Hide
    DRosencraft , November 7, 2013 7:33 AM
    I had a post about this on my blog earlier this week. It is an amazing feat of technology - the SR-71 then and this SR-72 now. What is frightening, however, is the way in which our technology has begun to mirror our nightmares. Realizing that this isn't simply a spy plane, that they're talking about arming this thing, you realize the coming ability to strike anywhere with impunity before anyone really knows what's going on.
  • -1 Hide
    Gulli , November 7, 2013 8:25 AM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    There goes another $10 billion in government contracts for something that may never appear and if it does it will already be outdated by the time it gets off the ground. Good to know there's nothing more important to spend out taxes on.


    So, what, the government spends that means someone is getting a paycheck. Someone getting a paycheck is buying goods ... so htat means what ... you might be getting a paycheck. Shut the f'up already it's not about who spends money, it's a cycle, "I buy you make money, you buy I make money." Everything else, is non-sensical ideology.



    It's a bit more complicated than that: had the money been spend on soemthing else then there would still be people getting a paycheck, quite possibly more people (same amount of money spread out over more smaller salaries), quite possibly with less of the money going to a giant corporation that is already pouring way too much money into politics and quite possibly with more of a non-financial (at least not immediately financial) benefit (like education or even reduction of the national debt) to more people.

    Quote:
    I had a post about this on my blog earlier this week. It is an amazing feat of technology - the SR-71 then and this SR-72 now. What is frightening, however, is the way in which our technology has begun to mirror our nightmares. Realizing that this isn't simply a spy plane, that they're talking about arming this thing, you realize the coming ability to strike anywhere with impunity before anyone really knows what's going on.


    It's going to take a while but eventually other countries will catch up with their own versions of such a plane and with countermeasures. People in major powers are safe anyway because there's still nuclear deterrence and economic interdependency, but yeah, whoever finds himself on the wrong side of a future 2011 Libyan War type of conflict between the US and a small, weak country should fear an American hypersonic bomber.
  • 0 Hide
    clonazepam , November 7, 2013 8:33 AM
    They use Dell computers. I got access into one of their Vandenburg buildings to replace some parts. Sadly, it was a small room with only tiny little things that made no sense to a pawn like myself.
Display more comments