Engineers at Lockheed Martin are to develop a hypersonic successor to the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
Dubbed the SR-72, the unmanned aircraft, is currently being developed at the firm’s Californian Skunk Works facility: birthplace of the Blackbird, the U2, and the F-35 Lightning II (joint strike fighter) amongst others.
According to the company, the new aircraft will be able to fly at Mach 6, twice the speed of Blackbird which, despite being retired in 1998, still holds the record for the world’s fastest air breathing manned aircraft.
According to Lockheed Martin’s website, the SR-72 is likely to be powered by a form of hybrid engine that integrates an off the shelf turbine with a supersonic ramjet engine.
The approach sounds similar to that used on the SR-71, which uses a specially designed hybrid engine that exploited the advantages of a turbo-jet at lower speeds but operated as a ramjet at higher speeds.
The aircraft will also build on Lockheed’s work on the rocket-launched Falcon hypersonic vehicle, an experimental project designed to collect data on the aerodynamics, thermal and navigational challenges of hypersonic flight.
In 2011, Falcon reached an astonishing speed of Mach 20 (13,000 mph) before crashing in to the sea.
Commenting on the potential applications of the new aircraft, Brad Leland, Lockheed’s Hypersonics programme manager said: ‘Hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour. Speed is the next aviation advancement to counter emerging threats in the next several decades. The technology would be a game-changer in theater, similar to how stealth is changing the battlespace today.’
According to Lockheed Martin, an SR-72 hypersonic demonstrator aircraft could be operational by 2030.