Feeds

Blackstar: the US space conspiracy that never was?

Two-stage ultrasecret vehicle wows the crowds

Top three mobile application threats

X project

The X-33The X-33 (pictured right) was another expensive US project which ended on the scrapheap. The single-stage-to-orbit concept cost the taxpayer an estimated $912m up to its 2001 cancellation.

Among the X-33's innovative technologies was its linear aerospike engine, also apparently deployed on the Blackstar orbiter.

Aerospike programme manager for Boeing Rocketdyne, Mike McKeon, explained to Space.com that the main difference between an aerospike engine and conventional jet plant was the nozzle shape: "In the bell shape, gas expands at the end of the nozzle. A bell nozzle is most efficient at one altitude."

An aerospike engine, on the other hand, is shaped like a "V" and uses a "series of small combustion chambers shoots [the hot gases] down the ramp on the outside using the atmosphere on the other side to act as the engine bell".

Space.com explains:

Building engine nozzles is a study in tradeoffs – an engine must operate at a wide range of altitudes, but can operate at peak efficiency in only a narrow range. At higher altitudes, gasses could expand farther and produce better performance if a bell-shaped nozzle was longer, but conventional nozzles can't grow longer, thus the compromise in performance.

The aerospike's plume is open to the atmosphere on one side, allowing it to expand, while it pushes against the ramp allowing it to operate efficiently at different altitudes.

Aerospike engines also allow "vectored thrust" without the need for moving mechanical nozzles, as they can simply adjust thrust from multiple combustion chambers to provoke the required change in direction.

The fuel for the aerospike, AWST claims, is "believed to be a boron-based gel having the consistency of toothpaste and high-energy characteristics, but occupying less volume than other fuels".

This is not an unusual concept - the US developed an ethyl borane fuel for the Valkyrie project - a so-called "zip fuel" - since "the common jet fuels of the time were recognised as being too heavy for the power they yield to push an aircraft beyond Mach 2 without constant use of afterburners".

The idea is pretty simple: boron-doped fuels produce more bangs for your bucks for less weight. Unfortunately, they're also highly toxic and leave "a heavy deposit on anything in its path, with turbine blades being particularly vulnerable".

Plausible deniability

That's the technology, but who built the Blackstar? AWST says: "One Pentagon official suggests that the Blackstar system was 'owned' and operated by a team of aerospace contractors, ensuring government leaders' plausible deniability. When asked about the system, they could honestly say, 'we don't have anything like that'."

One contractor named is Boeing, which "on 14 Oct, 1986... filed a US patent application for an advanced two-stage space transportation system", as well as "patent Number 4,802,639, awarded on 7 Feb, 1989, [which] details how a small orbiter could be air-dropped from the belly of a large delta-winged carrier at Mach 3.3 and 103,800 foot altitude".

AWST concludes: "Although drawings of aircraft platforms in the Boeing patent differ from those of the Blackstar vehicles spotted at several USAF bases, the concepts are strikingly similar."

McDonnell Douglas is also fingered. AWST claims technicians at a company plant in St Louis in the late 1980s and early 1990s "said much of the XOV's structure was made of advanced composite materials". They were, one unnamed techie says, "incredibly strong, and would handle very high temperatures".

High performance access to file storage

Next page: Crash and burn

More from The Register

next story
KILLER SPONGES menacing California coastline
Surfers are safe, crustaceans less so
Opportunity selfie: Martian winds have given the spunky ol' rover a spring cleaning
Power levels up 70 per cent as the rover keeps on truckin'
LOHAN and the amazing technicolor spaceplane
Our Vulture 2 livery is wrapped, and it's les noix du mutt
Liftoff! SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts Dragon on third resupply mission to ISS
SpaceX snaps smartly into one-second launch window
KILLER ROBOTS, DNA TAMPERING and PEEPING CYBORGS: the future looks bright!
Americans optimistic about technology despite being afraid of EVERYTHING
R.I.P. LADEE: Probe smashes into lunar surface at 3,600mph
Swan dive signs off successful science mission
Discovery time for 200m WONDER MATERIALS shaved from 4 MILLENNIA... to 4 years
Alloy, Alloy: Boffins in speed-classification breakthrough
prev story

Whitepapers

SANS - Survey on application security programs
In this whitepaper learn about the state of application security programs and practices of 488 surveyed respondents, and discover how mature and effective these programs are.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.