Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/04/24/blackstar/

Blackstar: the US space conspiracy that never was?

Two-stage ultrasecret vehicle wows the crowds

By Lester Haines

Posted in Science, 24th April 2006 13:58 GMT

Blackstar. Pic: AWSTThose among you who like their skies filled with black helicopters, or indeed secret space launch vehicles, might have already caught a quite remarkable March report in Aviation Week & Space Technology which claims that the US has successfully developed and tested a "two-stage-to-orbit system that could place a small military spaceplane in orbit" (see AWST pic, right).

The spook system, deliciously dubbed "Blackstar", allegedly comprises a carrier vehicle (codename "SR-3" according to AWST), to which is docked a reusable spacecraft (XOV or "experimental orbital vehicle"). On 4 October, 1998, claims AWST, eyewitness James Petty of Salt Lake City saw "a small, highly swept-winged vehicle nestled under the belly of the XB-70-like aircraft. The vehicle appeared to be climbing slowly on a west-southwest heading. The sky was clear enough to see both vehicles' leading edges, which Petty described as a dark gray or black color".

The orbiter apparently lands in a conventional manner, a la Space Shuttle, and reported sightings encompass Hurlburt AFB, Florida, Kadena AB, Okinawa, and Holloman AFB, New Mexico.

Provocative stuff. Of course, nobody in the US military has ever heard of Blackstar. ASWT says "top military space commanders apparently have never been 'briefed-in'," concluding that "most likely user is an intelligence agency" with eyes on the deployment of surveillance equipment comprising "an advanced imaging suite that features 1-metre-aperture adaptive optics with an integral sodium-ion-sensing laser".

So what's the solid evidence supporting AWST's story? As noted above, the SR-3 carrier vehicle resembles the XB-70 Valkyrie - legendary in both its technical ambitions and sheer cost.

The Ride of the Valkyrie

The B-70 ValkyrieThe XB-70 programme, initiated in 1955 by manufacturer North American, was designed to provide a very fast, long-range replacement for the B-52.

Powered by six turbojet engines to Mach 3, the XB-70 (left) was 196 feet long with a wingspan of 105 feet. Two prototypes were built at a cost of $700m a pop. The first (AV/1) made its maiden flight in 1964, with sister ship AV/2 taking to the skies in July 1965. The programme was dogged by technical problems from the start (detailed history of the project here), and ultimately doomed in June 1966 when AV/2 collided in midair with an accompanying F-104 Starfighter during a photo call flypast for the benefit of the manufacturers. Two pilots died and the aircraft was destroyed.

The Valkyrie had, however, previously reached it target velocity of Mach 3 in October 1965. The surviving AV/1 made a further 33 test flights until retirement in 1969, by which time the US military had acknowledged that sheer speed or altitude alone - which, in the case of the former, prevented the Valkyrie from performing even the most modest evasive manoeuvres - would not protect the aircraft from falling victim to Soviet ground-to-air missile technology. The case of Gary Powers, whose U-2 spyplane was brought down over the Soviet Union in 1960, made this painfully apparent.*

AWST's tech factsheet of the SR-3 reads as follows:

Regarding the orbiter, AWST explains:

During the system's development cycle, two types of spaceplane orbiters may have been flown. Both were a blended wing/fuselage lifting-body design, but differed in size. The smaller version was about 60 foot to 65 foot long and may have been unmanned or carried a crew of two, some say. Industry engineers said this technology demonstrator was "a very successful program".

The larger orbiter is reportedly 97.5 foot long, has a highly swept, blended wing/body planform and a short vertical fin. This bulky fin apparently doubles as a buried pylon for conformal carriage of the spaceplane beneath the large SR-3. The "Q-bay" for transporting an optics-system pallet or other payloads may be located aft of the cockpit, with payload doors on top of the fuselage.

Outboard sections of the spaceplane's wing/body cant slightly downward, possibly for shock-wave control and compression lift at high speeds while in the atmosphere, whether on ascent or reentry. The only visible control surfaces are flap or drag-type panels on the wing's trailing edge, one section on each side of the stubby vertical fin. A relatively large spade-shaped section forward of the cockpit - which gives the orbiter a "shark-nose" appearance - may provide some pitch stability, as well.

The orbiter's belly appears to be contoured with channels, riblets or "strakelets" that direct airflow to engine inlets and help dissipate aerodynamic heating. These shallow channels may direct air to a complex system of internal, advanced composite-material ducts, according to an engineer who says he helped build one version of the orbiter in the early 1990s. Air is directed to what is believed to be aerospike engines similar to those once planned for use on the NASA/Lockheed Martin X-33.

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".

Crash and burn

Those are the facts, according to AWST. If true, then the US has successfully and in almost complete secrecy, developed a reusable space vehicle system with a low Earth orbit capability.

Or rather, developed said technology. AWST says the entire project may have been "mothballed" due to "shrinking federal budgets strained by war costs". On the other hand, "it may not have met performance or operational goals".

Or there may be a simpler explanation: it never existed at all, or, if it did, it was never a viable technology in the first place. Cue a counterattack by Jeffrey F Bell (former space scientist and recovering pro-space activist) who bluntly dismisses the AWST report as "almost certainly bogus".

Bell kicks off by charging that AWST has "a long history of revealing secret programs that turned out to be either government disinformation, corporate disinformation, or just plain fantasy".

He describes the Blackstar theory as a "technical absurdity", specifically challenging the claim that "a black program succeeded in building a manned reusable SSTO rocketship light enough to be lifted by a modified B-70 and small enough to fit underneath it".

Bell explains: "The whole history of X-15, NASP, DC-X, and X-33 shows that this is impossible. A launch at Mach 3 and 100,000 just won't reduce the ~90% fuel fraction needed for a ground launched SSTO enough to allow this. Every real air-launch proposal has used multi-stage expendables carried by heavy-lift jumbo jets - and they still only can handle small lightsats."

Regarding the boron fuel plan, Bell asks: "Why would the Blackstar orbiter adopt this horribly expensive, dangerous, and awkward toothpaste fuel when liquid or slush hydrogen has even higher energy? If smaller volume is needed, the H2 can be carried in drop tanks like those on some early Space Shuttle designs."

There's more. How, Bell asks, does Blackstar actually operate?: "The alleged function of Blackstar and the alleged sightings don't make any sense.

"The manned orbiter's primary military advantage would be surprise overflight. There would be no forewarning of its presence, prior to the first orbit, allowing ground targets to be imaged before they could be hidden.

"Soviet missile-warning satellites would pick up the IR plume from the second stage, and since it would not be at a known space launch site they would interpret it as a covert nuclear missile launch. At a minimum you would get a major diplomatic crisis, at worst an accidental nuclear war!"

With regard to the Salt Lake City sighting, Bell reasons: "A basic rule of black airplanes such as F-117 and B-2 is that they are never flown outside closed airspace in the daytime. This was a major reason these programs were eventually revealed. But Blackstar has never been declassified and would never have flown over a major city in broad daylight."

Finally, Bell asks for concrete evidence of AOV's touching down: "So where are the photos of these spaceplane landings? The plane-spotter community sits outside air base perimeters with telephoto lenses, looking to complete their lists of tail numbers. But there are no convincing photos of these secret airplanes. There are no photos of the spectacular phenomena that would accompany a spaceplane re-entry. People photograph plane crashes and meteors, but never the re-entry of these covert spacecraft."

In summary, then, AWST claims it has accumulated years of evidence pointing to the existence of Blackstar. Critics dismiss it as nonsense. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusion, but the black helicopters are airborne, make no mistake. ®

Bootnote

*Black helicopters still hover over the sad story of Gary Powers. Some say he was brought down by a SAM, others anti-aircraft fire and there are, naturally, those who say he landed voluntarily.

Thanks to regular planespotter Michael Plunkett for the Blackstar tip-off.