Lockheed Martin is working a new unmanned plane – SR-72 – that is designed to reach Mach 6 or 3,600mph.
Engineers at Lockheed Martin’s SkunkWorks R&D centre are working on a successor to the Blackbird SR-71 spy plane, which in 1976 flew test pilots from New York to London in less than two hours.
The unmanned SR-72 will use an engine that combines a turbine and a ramjet to reach its top speed of Mach 6 – six sounds the speed of sound – or about 3,600mph.
Like most very fast planes, the space-age aircraft will fly at high-altitude and its purpose is primarily surveillance, but there may be some military capability.
The propulsion system is known as turbine-based combined cycle propulsion. The thrust engine is stage one, and the dual-mode ramjet accelerates the aircraft to hypersonic speeds.
A single inlet nozzle significantly reduces drag. The aircraft should be operational by 2030, Lockheed says.
Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works R&D centre in California designed and built the original Blackbird. The Blackbird was used in the 1960s at high altitudes of about 80,000ft for surveillance operations.
Lockheed emphasises the 21st century technology used to create SR-72. While SR-71 was designed using slide rules and paper, “it wasn’t managed by millions of lines of software code. And it wasn’t powered by computer chips.”
SR-72 may have a military role. “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.