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Hypersonic plane project confirmed by DARPA

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In the end - unless you're at the more tinfoil end of the Aurora spectrum - NASP was shelved. DARPA didn't have the money, the USAF was more interested in Stealth, and NASA had all it could do to fund the space shuttle. Since then, researchers have been puttering about with relatively limited efforts such as DARPA's Falcon programme, often ambitious in scope but limited in funding.

One aspect of Falcon is the so-called HTV-3X hypersonic demonstrator. This is a fighter-sized unmanned job, intended to burn regular jet fuel in turbojet/ramjet combo engines much like those of the SR-71.

Veteran aerospace analyst Bill Sweetman reports that the famous Lockheed "Skunk Works" reckon they could design such a modernised Blackbird for speeds of up to Mach 6.5 or so.

Now Wired magazine reports confirmation from DARPA that this relatively limited design has the go-ahead from the Air Force under the name "Blackswift", with funding initially estimated at $800m for two planes.

There are still many questions hanging over the Blackswift, not least what it's supposed to do. Being very fast, very hot, very high and made of exotic refractory material, it won't be at all stealthy - which could limit its usefulness as a spy plane.

Fans of the old SR-71 always said spy birds are more responsive than satellites, but according to some accounts SR-71 operations were actually highly involved, requiring a two-day lead in and multiple prearranged air-to-air refuellings. The crippling expense and complexity of SR-71 missions is one of many official reasons why the aircraft was binned.

As an alternative to spyplane work, a Blackswift hypersonic bomber could offer the ability to strike anywhere in the world at fairly short notice, but then so does an existing ICBM.

All in all, at $0.4bn or more per aircraft, the ability to go at a relatively uninteresting Mach 6 doesn't seem worth the money. Blackswift's true value is perhaps more as a stepping stone to something better.

Unless, of course, you're of the opinion that the something better already exists, and this is merely a billion-dollar coverup. ®

*The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency

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