I love it when a plan comes together. - Col. Hannibal Smith

The Blackstar may (or may not) be a different name for what many people (myself included) have referred to as the Aurora - a (rumored/possible/unlikely/fantasy) unannounced U.S. high technology aircraft system. It may be a different (insert skeptical adjective here) aircraft or program. Nonetheless, this name has just been publicly hung on a potential aviation chimera by Aviation Week and Space Technology, which on March 5, 2006 posted a story to its online website regarding a system that it claims may have been developed, possibly even fielded operationally, and even decommissioned - all without ever being acknowledged or even proven to have existed in the first place.

The name 'Blackstar,' they say, was used by the Air Force, but the prime operator of the system, the U.S. Intelligence community, had a more boring name for it - the SR-3/XOV. Since a great deal of speculation and other threads are gathered together in the Aurora writeup, and as AW&ST admits that no "iron-clad" evidence exists for this system (I presume that by this they mean 'on the record' statements and/or photographs which have been officially validated) we'll have to simply make our own way in the wilderness. This writeup will therefore concentrate on how the Blackstar's described specifications differ from those of the presumed Aurora aircraft described in that node, and on how information published by AW&ST corresponds to, confirms or contradicts information available elsewhere.

The most notable difference is in the intended purpose of the system. Aurora was seen as strictly an aircraft, or perhaps (at the outer range of possibility) an aerospace platform akin to the X-15 or the National Aero-Space Plane which program might have been used as a 'cover' or technology transfer for it. The Blackstar, AW&ST claims, was in fact an operational TSTO space launch system comprised of a carrier/drop launch aircraft (the SR-3) closely modeled on the XB-70A Valkyrie bomber, and an orbiter (the XOV, or eXperimental Orbital Vehicle) which was ferried to high altitude beneath the SR-3 and dropped almost precisely like the recent civilian SpaceShipOne. The XOV, however, may have been capable of reaching not only a suborbital trajectory but a full Low Earth Orbit, and placing microsatellites - or even weapons - into such an orbit, with very little notice before deployment.

Although you can read most of the details for yourself on AW&ST's website, there are some bits that stand out as interesting. The genesis of the project is said to have been the result of the Challenger disaster and the following string of failed military expendable launches which caused the U.S. Government to worry that it had lost a reliable means of access to space, at a time in the Cold War when such access was critical for reconnaissance purposes at a minimum. The story claims that a consortium of contractors proposed to resurrect what was in essence the original plan for the XB-70 Valkyrie and the X-20 DynaSoar projects - and that there were even long-lead items unused from the never-built third XB-70 air vehicle in storage which were quickly pressed into service.

This is all plausible. The XB-70 and X-20 were originally considered for a TSTO mating, although the plans were never carried forward; both aircraft were cancelled. Second, there was supposed to be a third XB-70, but as that node describes, a mid-air collision (and the program's cancellation) meant that the third test vehicle was never completed. Various 'watchers of Lockheed's Skunk Works and other facilities have commented on the apparently high work pace maintained there despite no actual 'product' coming out of said pipelines.

Although AW&ST does not offer any physical evidence of its 'sightings,' there have been various pictures circulated among the aircraft and conspiracy communities over the years. One such made an appearance amongt the denizens of e2janes recently (thanks archiewood!), some weeks prior to this story's publication); the various members of that group attempted to identify the aircraft in it without coming to an agreement, although there was mention of the XB-70. That photo is available here.

The claimed photographer states that it was taken (correction) in Davis, California on October 9, 2005 and the aircraft in question crossed approximately south-to-north horizon-to-horizon in approximately 12-15 seconds, which is why it was deemed interesting. The photo was taken wth a Nikon D70, facing west, at 300mm of focal length. It was first posted on an X-Plane enthusiast board at:

http://forums.x-plane.org/index.php?showtopic=13886&st=160

There are definite correlations between this photo and the story in AW&ST. While there is no pedigree for the image, one is struck by the following:

  • The twin, tall, outward-canted vertical fins at the back of what appear to be a delta wing
  • Two bright light sources indicating either twin engines or two separated groups of engines
  • The fact that the aircraft is using extremely high power engines - either afterburners or something exotic

All three of these items correspond well with the AW&ST story. The vertical canard size is too large, in relation to the aircraft's total size, for it to correlate well with other airplanes known to use afterburners over the continental United States. None of the fighters, which are by far the most prevalent afterburning fliers, have outboard vertical canards. The now-retired Concorde had 'partial reheat' and the B-1B Lancer has afterburning turbofans. However, while both have delta wings, neither of these larger airplanes have outboard vertical canards; the Concorde's partial afterburning wouldn't produce this sort of flare, and the engines of the B-1B are spaced relatively further apart, mounted underneath the wings. In addition, both the Concorde and the Lancer have large single, dorsal-mounted vertical stabilizers rather than canards on their wingtips.

A California sighting, with the aircraft headed north under high power, would make sense if it was deployed from a New Mexico or Nevada base such as Holloman or Groom Lake. While a southwesterly heading might not be ideal for a launch to orbit, a northerly path would make sense if the carrier's intent was to maneuver for a polar orbit (i.e. spy satellite) drop. There is no evidence of an orbiter in the image as far as I can see, which however may simply mean that the carrier is in normal flight (perhaps in transit), has already dropped the orbiter, or is undergoing tests. Given Davis, CA's location, it is also possible that the carrier is completing a Pacific coastal run prior to looping east and south towards home. This assumes that one believes the poster's description of the aircraft speed and angle, and that the image is not, as some commenters have opined, an angled shot of an airliner with twin bright reflections off of the underbody (with the 'stabilizers' in fact being the wings).

The photographer claims a picture time of approximately 1909 - I assume local, there's no reason for his camera to be in UTC. If that's the case, looking westward, then the sun would in fact be relatively low in the western sky in October. Since it isn't visible and the sky behind the aircraft is blue, it is possible that the sun is significantly below the aircraft as it was shot, which would mean it would be possible for a reflection to shine from the belly of said aircraft to the lens. The long focus of the lens (300mm) might (I'm not an optics specialist) make lens flaring less likely as well. Anyone want to try to model that? ;-)

A California transit does fit well with the NOTAM incident reported in the Aurora node. A French aerospace writer with whom I have been in correspondance over this image brings up a good point, which is that north and slightly east of Davis, CA is Beale AFB - which is home of the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing. Although a northern track under high power doesn't correspond well to a landing pattern for Beale, it might indicate a loop south before a northern climb. On the other hand, it does seem unlikely that a system this 'black' and as large (and hence obvious) would be housed at Beale, so that may be a non-starter.

All I can say is that if the U.S. does have this thing, then I want one in the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center, like, pronto. Or better yet, flying, damn it. And if they'd wanted my tax money for it, all they'd had to do was ask. I would've written checks.

Update: A rebuttal from Space Daily

The website Space Daily has published a rebuttal to AvWeek's article by a gent who is identified as a 'former space scientist and recovering pro-space activist,' so let's keep the bias in mind as we look at some of his points which definitely aren't bad ones. The article is available at:

http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Blackstar_A_False_Messiah_From_Groom_Lake.html

He harps on AvWeek being an unreliable source, pointing out some of AvWeek's more preposterous stories in recent years - including speculation on the Aurora, as well as reportage on the zero-point energy nuttiness. This is absolutely true; AvLeak have been guilty of publishing some severe cheese in the past. The Blackstar story may, in fact, be more of the same. Particularly noteworthy is the lack of any photographic evidence offered by that publication despite their reports of numerous 'sightings' by planewatchers - a point he makes - who usually perform their vigils armed with batteries of camera gear. On the other hand, given that AvWeek has gone out of the way to note at the top of their report that they cannot validate this story with hard evidence, the publication of such (if they had any) would be confusing to say the least. One of the problems with photographic evidence of aircraft in flight, especially unknown ones, is that there can be as many opinions about what the aircraft is as there are examiners. There will always be those who can claim with perfect truthfulness that what they see is an airliner, a fighter, or even a Cessna caught at a strange angle - and unless you were there at the moment the photo was taken, you will be hard-pressed to respond to that.

Next, a more meaty objection - that of 'technical absurdity,' in that there is no way a drop-launched, manned, reusable orbiter could go SSTO due to the "90% fuel fraction" required. In other words, based on the specific impulse of known engine technology, 90% of the mass of the orbiter would need to be fuel in order to reach orbit - and based on what you could lift with a B-70 like aircraft, you couldn't build a functioning spaceplane with the remaining mass fraction. I don't have the technical expertise to provide much pushback, here. I will state that the 90% fuel fraction is a function of the Isp of current engine technology, but no, I'm not going to claim that the orbiter is using something magic.

There was talk in the article of a 'fuel breakthrough', however. He claims that this is not likely, but then goes on to debunk the notion of a boron-based fuel using information about failures in programs for turbojet-based fuels (for the B-70, ironically) in the 1950s, and advances in rocket fuels continued for a few years after than but then cancelled. Bell argues that slush hydrogen has more energy than the boron-based compounds investigated during this period, so why would they be used? My question in return would be, why is Bell assuming that a 'breakthrough in 1991' is the same fuel as that from a program 'cancelled in 1962'?

He objects to details of the integrated-laser adaptive optics, saying 'you don't want the provocation of firing a laser at an enemy installation from orbit' and pointing out that the turbulent layer of air is near the surface not orbit itself. My response is that first of all, quibbling about the correctness of speculation concerning the sensing payload of such a system is rather pointless. If the U.S. spy satellite program is any guide, the sensors would be secret to a level far past that of the vehicle. Second, there's no reason to assume that the laser in question would be visible to those on the ground - the purpose of this vehicle is 'surprise recon', remember? And no matter where that turbulent layer of air is, it's still between you and your target. You're still going to have to compensate for it.

Next objection: He takes issue with the notion of the orbiter channeling intake air to an aerospike engine, since "the aerospike engines on the X-33 were ROCKET engines and don't need intake air. They also turned out much heavier that predicted and played a major role in the failure of that program." I will limit myself to noting, again, that he's deep in the weeds here. We don't know that there's an aerospike on this thing; it's a possibility. We also don't know that the aerospike being too heavy is true, or a real reason the X-33 failed. We're told, in fact, that perhaps one reason the X-33 and NASP failed is because they were really a cover for this system, so that argument wouldn't quite hold water.

Bell points out that the intended role of the Blackstar would cause problems as well, since the IR signature of the orbiter launch would be visible to Soviet missile warning systems. Since it would not be rising from known space-launch facilities, he notes that "at a minimum you would get a major diplomatic crisis, at worst an accidental nuclear war!" Well...maybe. In order to hit targets inside the USSR/Russia using U.S. ICBMs or SLBMs, you would need to launch not only from within a certain area of the planet, but into certain trajectories (i.e. in certain directions). While spy satellites tend to polar trajectories (north/south), and missiles launch northwards as well, an orbiter intended to make a few passes for observation and then land might be more likely to launch eastwards, so as to take advantage of the earth's rotational velocity. If Soviet/Russian missile warning systems were able to differentiate the tracks, this wouldn't be a concern.

There's a simpler answer, as well. If the Soviet IR satellite warning system only covered the U.S. missile bases and typical SSBN operating areas, it might have been possible to simply send the carrier aircraft somewhere else before launch - southerly Pacific, for example. It might also have been possible to operate the system such that the air launch took place over a known launch facility, such as Vandenberg AFB. If an actual launch window was published for potential times of operation, that might have been enough to soothe any potential Soviet misgivings, especially if the launch trajectory followed others which had been seen to come out of the facility before. While the Soviet missile warning system could certainly spot a plume, it would take missile-warning radars to confirm that the launch was in fact resulting in an inbound attack - and the lack of any inbounds on the radars would show that the launch had, in fact, not been 'hostile.' Vandenberg is close enough to Groom Lake that Bell's other objection, that the aircraft would never have been operated during daytime, no longer applies either; it would have been easy to perform a night operation, drop launch over Vandenberg's launch range, and be snugged back in at Groom Lake before light.

I'll leave it there. Suffice to say that I'm not putting this up because I think Bell is wrong. I'm putting this up to demonstrate that without actual, validated information, it will be very very difficult to kill a story like Blackstar, especially when (as Bell notes) there are people out there (like me, I admit) who want to believe. The problem with Bell's story is that he seems very much to want not to believe - just like those in government who have a vested interest in having you not believe. So make up your own mind. Remember that a few men and women with very few resources compared to the government did manage to achieve at least suborbital altitudes using an air-launched system not too long ago. While it certainly didn't approach the speeds required for orbit, it is also much smaller, cheaper, and lower-tech. One possibility is that the reason Blackstar was cancelled is because the system never did achieve orbital velocity - that while it successfully launched suborbital manned vehicles, they never did manage to achieve the speeds required for orbital insertion. That would go a long way towards explaining why it was shelved. If all that was required was a single pass over the target, a high-altitude ballistic spaceplane that didn't achieve orbital velocity would still be a useful 'quick response' capability.

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