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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