As The Aviation Geek Club contributor and SR-71 Blackbird expert Linda Sheffield Miller explains on her Facebook page Habubrats, ‘Darkstar bears a striking resemblance to artist renderings of Lockheed Martin’s long-awaited follow-up to the SR-71 Blackbird, the hypersonic SR-72. As it turns out, that may not have been by accident. According to Jerry Bruckheimer and Joseph Kosinski, the film’s director, they actually worked with engineers out of Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works on the design. I found out from a friend who’s in the movie business that Skunk Works designers went to an SR-71 that’s on display and carefully studied the aircraft! You can see the family resemblance. The airplane that they made up is so realistic that the Chinese turned their spy satellite toward the mock-up that the Skunk Works had made up so they could see it better.’
The aircraft shown in the movie is very clearly not based on anything in operation today… but that doesn’t mean it’s without an analogous real-world platform.
According to Lockheed Martin website in fact, ‘When the Top Gun: Maverick team was looking to push the envelope and stand true to Maverick’s Need for Speed, Skunk Works was their first call. With the Skunk Works expertise in developing the fastest known aircraft combined with a passion and energy for defining the future of aerospace, Darkstar’s capabilities could be more than mere fiction. They could be reality…
‘Just like most Skunk Works projects, the team supporting the film and the development of the Darkstar aircraft continued their work in secrecy. Our Skunks worked with the film production team to understand their needs, then quietly worked on the design and build until the concept was revealed to the world in the film.’
The exotic-looking Darkstar aircraft will introduce hypersonic platforms to the Top Gun universe.
The SR-72 is envisioned as a manned or an unmanned, reusable hypersonic ISR and strike aircraft capable of Mach 6 flight, or nearly double the speed of its predecessor, the SR-71 Blackbird. As we have previously reported, NASA is funding the validation of a previous Lockheed study that found that speeds up to Mach 7 could be achieved with a dual-mode engine that combines turbine and ramjet technologies.
As explained by James C. Goodall in his book 75 years of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, Skunk Works was responsible for developing the SR-71 Blackbird, which was able to achieve Mach 3.2 with specially designed Pratt & Whitney J58 engines. The power plants were able to function as a low-speed ramjet by redirecting intake air around the engine core and into the afterburner starting at Mach 1.4 to full turboramjet from Mach 2.5 and above.
Both the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and DARPA have been after a low-speed ramjet for years. The agencies’ HTV-3X program demonstrated that a ramjet that could operate below Mach 3. That inspired Lockheed to partner with Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop a way to use off-the shelf engines like the F100 or F110 for short bursts of acceleration beyond Mach 2.2 in an attempt to close the gap between the two propulsion technologies. This study is to see if the SR-72 technology demonstrator can use existing technologies to create a dual-mode ramjet (DMRJ) that in theory can light up at Mach 2 to 2.5. The key to this whole effort is whether they can do it and finding the required technologies so they can plan for a program in which they can develop the program as envisioned.
The target is to be able to go up to Mach 7 then transition back to the turbine to land it on a runway and recover it. The problem is how you can get the vehicle to fly fast enough to ignite the DMRJ and then have the DMRJ take over.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin
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