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Lockheed's 'Son of Blackbird' spy plane might already be here

Lockheed's 'Son of Blackbird' spy plane might already be here
From Engadget - January 19, 2018

That's why Lockheed's secretive Skunk Works team has been developing the SR-72, dubbed "Son of Blackbird", since at least 2007. This next generation spy plane will reportedly exceed its predecessor in nearly every way. Rumored to be powered by an air-breathing scramjet engine, the SR-72 will conceivably be capable of topping Mach 6 (4,000MPH), granting the hypersonic aircraft an ability to streak through enemy air defenses before anyone knows it's even there.

But drafting a design proposal and building an unmanned airplane capable of breaking the sound barrier six times over are two entirely different animals. That's partly why the SR-72 is not expected to enter the prototype phase until around 2030 (though Lockheed vice president Jack O'Banion recently hinted that it already has).

Even though the US Air Force has been toying with the technology since the 1960s, hypersonic aircraft and the scramjets that propel them, remain on the bleeding edge of aerospace engineering. This is due in part to the sheer difficulty in developing them, Dr. Bobby Braun, Dean of Engineering and Applied Science at University of Colorado Boulder, told Engadget.

"When it comes to a hypersonic system that's going to carry a significant payload, there are a number of technical challenges," he explained. "In fact, it's the integration of what is generally three different domains -- aerothermodynamics, structures and propulsion -- that make developing a hypersonic vehicle such a challenge."

Hypersonic vehicles have to maintain their shape to get the right aerodynamic characteristics, Braun explained, which is harder than it sounds when the aircraft's surface is heated to thousands of degrees Fahrenheit due to air friction.

Braun also points out that propulsion is an equally daunting challenge, noting that aircraft designed for subsonic flight (a Boeing 737, for example) have very different propulsion needs than supersonic fighter jets and hypersonic spy planes.

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