Lockheed Martin recently confirmed that its Skunk Works engineers are developing a hypersonic aircraft that will go twice the speed of the SR-71 Blackbird, called the SR-72. The SR-71 is renowned for having flown from New York to London in less than two hours, a world speed record that exceeded Mach 3 and has remained unbroken for over 38 years.
For the past several years, Skunk Works has been working with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop a method to integrate an off-the-shelf turbine with a supersonic combustion ramjet air-breathing jet engine to power the aircraft from standstill to Mach 6. The result is the SR-72 will integrate an engine and airframe that is optimized at the system level for high performance and affordability.
Envisioned as an unmanned aircraft, the SR-72 with an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission, would fly at speeds up to Mach 6 (six times the speed of sound). At this speed, the aircraft would be so fast, an adversary would have no time to react or hide.
“Hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles, could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour,” said Brad Leland, Lockheed Martin Program Manager, Hypersonics. “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 battle space today.”
SR-72 is not the first hypersonic Skunk Works aircraft project. With DARPA, engineers developed the rocket-launched Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2). The HTV-2 R&D project was designed to collect data on three technical challenges of hypersonic flight: aerodynamics; aerothermal effects; and guidance, navigation, and control.
The SR-72’s design incorporates lessons learned from the HTV-2, which flew to a top speed of Mach 20, or 13,000 mph, with a surface temperature of 3500°F. At those speeds, flight time between New York City and Los Angeles would be less than 12 minutes.
Lockheed Martin projects that the SR-72 could be operational by 2030.