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DARPA seeks $750m for hypersonic roboplane testbed

Bad news for tinfoil-sporting 'Aurora' diehards

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DARPA*, the Pentagon research hothouse where only the most exotic notions bloom on a rich mulch of taxpayer greenbacks, is bidding for a cool three-quarter-billion in funds to build a hypersonic plane.

Reports of the "Blackswift" project - a refinement of the HTV-3X demonstrator plan mooted under DARPA's Falcon scheme - emerged last year. Now, according to reports, 2009 funding requests going before American legislators contain an item of $0.75bn for DARPA to take the project forward. If all goes well, the US air force will take it over in time.

The plans call for a fighter-sized, probably unmanned testbed aircraft which is thought likely to burn fairly ordinary hydrocarbon fuel in turbo/ram jets based on the same kind of technology as the late, great Mach-3.5 SR71 "Blackbird" spyplane of Cold War fame. Reliable sources suggest that speeds of Mach 6 plus could be on the cards this time. That would normally be into hydrogen scramjet territory, but some researchers think that heavier fuel can be burnt practically in a supersonic airflow. Others reckon that intake air could be slowed using magnetohydrodynamics, and the energy put back in downstream of the combustion chamber.

The funding figures were reported by Inside Defense (subscription only). Wired magazine, which originally confirmed the Blackswift plans, has details too.

Bad news, this, for those who contend that America has been operating a top-secret hypersonic SR71 replacement all along. If the legendary "Aurora" really exists, Blackswift is shaping up to be the most expensive and elaborate disinformation ploy ever. ®

*Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency

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