For 16 years, Aviation Week & Space Technology says, it has been investigating a hush-hush Pentagon program to put a "small military spaceplane in orbit. Considerable evidence supports the existence of such a highly classified system, and top Pentagon officials have hinted that it's 'out there,' but iron-clad confirmation that meets AW&ST standards has remained elusive. Now facing the possibility that this innovative 'Blackstar' system may have been shelved, we elected to share what we've learned about it with our readers, rather than let an intriguing technological breakthrough vanish into 'black world' history, known to only a few insiders."
After the shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986, and a subsequent string of expendable-booster failures, Pentagon leaders were stunned to learn they no longer had "assured access to space." Suddenly, the U.S. needed a means to orbit satellites necessary to keep tabs on its Cold War adversaries.The answer: a high-flying, hypersonic jet that would launch a small orbiter into space.
A large "mothership," closely resembling the U.S. Air Force's historic XB-70 supersonic bomber, carries the orbital component conformally under its fuselage, accelerating to supersonic speeds at high altitude before dropping the spaceplane. The orbiter's engines fire and boost the vehicle into space. If mission requirements dictate, the spaceplane can either reach low Earth orbit or remain suborbital.The manned orbiter's primary military advantage would be surprise overflight. There would be no forewarning of its presence, prior to the first orbit, allowing ground targets to be imaged before they could be hidden. In contrast, satellite orbits are predictable enough that activities having intelligence value can be scheduled to avoid overflights...Once a Blackstar orbiter reenters the atmosphere, it can land horizontally at almost any location having a sufficiently long runway. So far, observed spaceplane landings have been reported at Hurlburt AFB, Fla.; Kadena AB, Okinawa; and Holloman AFB, N.M.The spaceplane is capable of carrying an advanced imaging suite that features 1-meter-aperture adaptive optics with an integral sodium-ion-sensing laser. By compensating in real-time for atmospheric turbulence-caused aberrations sensed by the laser, the system is capable of acquiring very detailed images of ground targets or in-space objects, according to industry officials familiar with the package.One anonymous tipster asks, "Is it possible to design, build and operate such a complex and expensive system and still keep it secret for so long?"UPDATE 03/06/06 10:15 AM: "Aerospace experts [are] question[ing] a number of claims made for the Blackstar concept," MSNBC's Jim Oberg reports.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, sources told MSNBC.com that they believed the concept was unworkable, based on principles of rocket design. One source said the mothership would be flying much too slow and too low for a space plane to reach orbital speed after release. When the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sought proposals for an unmanned RASCAL satellite launcher five years ago, the specifications called for the carrier aircraft to go much higher, and the submitted designs still needed two stages to reach orbital speed.