Providing On-Demand Worldwide Attack
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.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.