The military has been working on this for a while. The X-20 Dyna-Soar
project attempted to develop a military spaceplane back in the 60s. It was scrapped before it went into production, but design elements & research were supposedly used in the development of the Space Shuttle. Further back than that, Eugen Sänger conceived a suborbital bomber for the NAZIs during World War II, called Silbervogel (Silverbird)
. The NAZIs thought they could develop it to attack New York & the rest of the continental United States.
According to the article, it is believed that the "Blackstar" was designed in the 1980s as a response to the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The Pentagon needed "assured access to space" for their satellites. The vehicle is designed for "reconnaissance, satellite-insertion and, possibly, weapons delivery."
This two-vehicle "Blackstar" carrier/orbiter system may have been declared operational during the 1990s. A large "mothership," closely resembling the U.S. Air Force's historic XB-70 supersonic bomber, carries the orbital component conformally under its fuselage, accelerating to supersonic speeds at high altitude before dropping the spaceplane. The orbiter's engines fire and boost the vehicle into space. If mission requirements dictate, the spaceplane can either reach low Earth orbit or remain suborbital.
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. In contrast, satellite orbits are predictable enough that activities having intelligence value can be scheduled to avoid overflights. Exactly what missions the Blackstar system may have been designed for and built to accomplish are as yet unconfirmed, but U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) officers and contractors have been toying with similar spaceplane-operational concepts for years. Besides reconnaissance, they call for inserting small satellites into orbit, and either retrieving or servicing other spacecraft. Conceivably, such a vehicle could serve as an anti-satellite or space-to-ground weapons-delivery platform, as well.
Once a Blackstar orbiter reenters the atmosphere, it can land horizontally at almost any location having a sufficiently long runway. So far, observed spaceplane landings have been reported at Hurlburt AFB, Fla.; Kadena AB, Okinawa; and Holloman AFB, N.M.
even gives rough dimensions & characteristics:
- A roughly 200-ft.-long, clipped-delta-winged planform resembling that of the North American Aviation XB-70 trisonic bomber. The forward fuselage is believed to be more oval-shaped...
- Canards that extend from the forward fuselage. These lifting surfaces may sweep both fore and aft to compensate for large center-of-gravity changes after dropping the spaceplane, based on multiple sighting reports.
- Large, outward-canted vertical tail surfaces at the clipped-delta's wingtips.
- At least four engine exhaust ports, grouped as two well-separated banks on either side of the aircraft centerline.
- Very loud engines. One other classified military aircraft may have used the same type of powerplant.
- Operation at supersonic speeds and altitudes up to 90,000 ft.
- 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 60-65 ft. 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 ft. 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.
Here's the Real Genius
The spaceplane's small cargo or "Q-bay" also could be configured to deliver specialized microsatellites to low Earth orbit or, perhaps, be fitted with no-warhead hypervelocity weapons--what military visionaries have called "rods from god." Launched from the fringes of space, these high-Mach weapons could destroy deeply buried bunkers and weapons facilities.
One interesting aspect of this article is who controls & "owns"
the plane. Boeing
& Lockheed Martin
are named as possible parties & developers in this, later in the story, but when I first read this passage I thought Halliburton
For whatever reason, top military space commanders apparently have never been "briefed-in"--never told of the Blackstar system's existence--even though these are the "warfighters" who might need to employ a spaceplane in combat. Consequently, the most likely user is an intelligence agency. The National Reconnaissance Office may have played a role in the program, but former senior NRO officials have denied any knowledge of it.
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 question I do have for the engineers & physicists who know propulsion fuel sources, is what the hell could this be...
Work on the orbiter moved at a relatively slow pace until a "fuel breakthrough" was made, workers were told. Then, from 1990 through 1991, "we lived out there. It was a madhouse," a technician said. The new fuel was believed to be a boron-based gel having the consistency of toothpaste and high-energy characteristics, but occupying less volume than other fuels.
Why is Aviation Week releasing all this info? According to their sources, the Blackstar may be in the process of being "shelved
" due to budget cuts. Or maybe they've come up with something better?
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