the hypersonic wonder that couldve been
Do we really have, or even need, a hypersonic combination of a bomber and spy plane?
Over the last decade, there’ve been rumors of a jet that can fly more than six times the speed of sound and cross continents in minutes. Air quakes and strange contrails on weather maps along with secret line items for black project funding mentioning something called Aurora, are often cited as evidence for this kind of technology. It was even featured on the cover of Popular Mechanics and merited special mention in a speculative article on the next generation of secret warplanes. It must be somewhere, hiding in the hangars of Area 51, just waiting to be unveiled like the SR-71 Blackbird and the Stealth, right?
Well, probably not. Maybe there’s a prototype somewhere of a potentially hypersonic plane that was even flown a few times and put away in cold storage. But its probably very different from the speculative drawings and as counterintuitive as it may sound, it wont have much of a role in military efforts because of just how fast and powerful it’s supposed to be.
First and foremost, all speculative designs for Aurora have a triangular shape, aerodynamically perfect for a jet thats supposed to go faster than six times the speed of sound. It reduces the friction of the air around it and diffuses the immense heat it will generate. Its engines, however, resemble a scramjet array. In theory, scramjet engines with no moving parts are supposed to generate enough power to propel a craft to more than Mach 12. In reality, theyre not stable yet and few serious tests resulted in a successful flight. Our stumbles in this technology have led to the shelving of many promising space plane projects intended to replace the shuttle and the Concord.
Using ramjets, which weve been able to create, wouldn’t give the plane enough oomph to get to Mach 6 and qualify it as a hypersonic jet. Other theoretical propulsion like pulse detonation engines is even less reliable and their current tests are worlds away from the energy output itll need to produce to move more than 30 tons of aircraft at 4,600 miles per hour.
Secondly, moving that fast would make Aurora ineffective at many of its intended functions. It could only fire very long range guided missiles. Close combat will be next to impossible since it will be too fast to hit with an unguided weapon and at the same time too fast to return fire. It would also be too fast for reconnaissance. It would move as fast as a satellite, but a satellite is far above the Earth and has more time to look at an area of interest. The Aurora would scream by and have just a precious second or two over the area of interest, requiring multiple passes to get the necessary high quality photos. It would be a good nuclear bomber because it could deliver powerful ordinance in a flash but it may have to sacrifice too much accuracy on non- nuclear bombing runs in order to move quickly.
All this brings us to our third and final problem with Aurora as a viable military aicraft. It would be redundant. Reconnaissance by plane had to be done until satellite technology advanced far enough along to monitor areas of interest across the globe. Satellites are fast, difficult to shoot down (even though the US and China have shown they can do it) and they have enough time to capture high resolution images and videos. Existing jets like the F18 and F22 are well suited to fight unit to unit (although when was the last time US aircraft had to dogfight?) and perform a quick bombing run. Stealth bombers are exactly that. Perfect bombers. And when it comes to delivering nuclear ordinance Lets just say that ICBMs are really fast, scary and can find their target half a world away with impressive ease.
When we put together our current technical capabilities, the engineering challenges and all the problems in using something this fast, expensive and complex efficiently, it looks like Aurora is not going to see the light of day for a very long time if it ever will. My regrets to the potential lonely prototype out there in a top secret hangar. Generals love powerful and expensive toys, but if the history of Area 51’s experiments is any guide, many of those toys end up as nothing more than novel ideas.