Aurora: Back In Black?

Message posted by Chris H. on September 13, 2006 at 7:05:33 PST:

Someone here posted a link to a new article about black programs at Area 51 by Bill Sweetman a few days ago. As someone had said, nothing too earth shattering, but there were a few things regarding Aurora that spiked my interest. I wasn't aware that there have been some recent sonic booms in San Diego that are reminiscent of the early 90's booms felt over Los Angeles. Here is what Sweetman had to say:

Lastly, there’s Aurora. The name itself is mysterious, evoking something you may or may not have seen. This code name leaked out of an unclassified budget document back in 1985. Such a vehicle—a ramjet-powered reconaissance and strike aircraft capable of flying at least five times the speed of sound and deploying anywhere in the world in a matter of hours—has been high on the government’s wish list. Aurora is certainly possible. The basic propulsion unit, the ramjet, is no more than a tapered tube with a fuel injector and burner in the middle and a thrust nozzle at the end. Basic ramjet-powered missiles have topped Mach 6. A wealth of aerodynamic data and test flights suggest that a wedge-shaped aircraft would work at these speeds.

I first heard about this kind of program in the mid-1980s, and the first public hint of the project popped up in 1988, when the New York Times reported that the Air Force was developing a spyplane capable of better than Mach 5—nearly twice as fast as the SR-71, then the world’s fastest airplane.

Two years later, the Blackbird was retired. In June 1991, the first in a series of unexplained shock waves rolled across the Los Angeles basin, rattling doors and windows and making people think of earthquakes. But they were not earthquakes, and the military adamantly denied that any of its vehicles caused the booms. In May of this year, I consulted with Dom Maglieri, an ex-NASA sonic-boom expert who has played a key role in the development of low-sonic-boom aircraft. We studied 15-year-old seismograph data from the California Institute of Technology, whose uniquely sensitive sensors could actually track the booms. “The data showed something at 90,000 feet, Mach 4 to Mach 5,” Maglieri says now. The booms did not look like refracted, “over the top” booms, as other reports had indicated—booms from aircraft miles away that had traveled up through the atmosphere and bent down toward Los Angeles. The booms looked like direct overflights by a supersonic airplane that no one admitted to owning. “The signatures are awfully different,” Maglieri says.

Shortly after the first set of waves appeared, Chris Gibson, an oil engineer and well-known aircraft-recognition expert, contacted me. In August 1989, Gibson said, he had been working on a North Sea rig when a colleague called him outside to see a formation of airplanes overhead. Clearly silhouetted against the sky were two F-111 bombers, a KC-135 tanker and—in refueling position behind the tanker—an unidentifiable delta-shaped airplane, about 90 feet long, a near-perfect match for unclassified studies of high-supersonic cruise airplanes.

This evidence helps establish the program’s initial existence. My investigations continue to turn up evidence that suggests current activity. For example, having spent years sifting through military budgets, tracking untraceable dollars and code names, I learned how to sort out where money was going. This year, when I looked at the Air Force operations budget in detail, I found a $9-billion black hole that seems a perfect fit for a project like Aurora.

Over the years, I’ve learned that few people investigate budget holes seriously. Analysts such as Steven Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank that pushes innovation in defense, doubt that Congress even knows what’s going on. “A fair amount of classified spending goes through in supplemental requests,” he told me. “It’s seen as must-pass legislation, and people don’t look at it closely.” This $9-billion gap and the most recent booms felt in San Diego and elsewhere are the most compelling evidence for the program’s resurgence. (We can’t analyze the new booms because seismic sensors of the same type were not present.)

But if Aurora has been active for years, why would it be surging forward now? The main hold-up has probably been fuel. The way to make a hypersonic cruiser work is to use circulating fuel to soak up the engine’s heat, but conventional jet fuel can’t absorb enough heat to do the job. In the 1980s, Aurora would have been designed to use fuels such as hydrogen or methane, which are gaseous at normal temperatures and had to be supercooled and densified to fuel the aircraft. Although that strategy is possible, it’s not operationally easy, and complicated refueling would be counterproductive for a jet intended to provide prompt overflight when the military needed it. Better fuels and engine technologies exist now.

The question, finally, is does Aurora exist? Years of pursuit have led me to believe that, yes, Aurora is most likely in active development, spurred on by recent advances that have allowed technology to catch up with the ambition that launched the program a generation ago.

Bill Sweetman is a PopSci contributing editor and author of more than 30 books on aerospace technology.


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