The "Aurora" Project

Strategic Reconnaissance


For those unfamiliar with the name Aurora, it is believed to be a stealthy high-speed reconnaissance aircraft that replaced the SR-71 Blackbird, officially the fastest aircraft in the world. Some reports have indicated that if this aircraft does indeed exist, it may be capable of speeds exceeding Mach 4. In answer to the question, yes, speeds of Mach 4 to 10 are within the limits of current technology at least from aerodynamic and propulsion considerations. The real limitation is thermal properties, or can we build an aircraft that will withstand the high temperatures experienced at high speed flight.

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Conceptual view of the supposed Aurora
Conceptual view of the supposed "Aurora"

To better understand how aircraft are designed to fly at high Mach numbers, we need to know a little about the flow properties at these speeds. In a previous question on supercritical airfoils, we discussed the subsonic, transonic, and supersonic regimes of flight. Yet another regime is called hypersonic flight. Though typically said to begin at about Mach 5, this is only a rule of thumb and indicates the approximate speed at which flow phenomena of little importance at low supersonic numbers begin to become more significant.

One of the most significant of these phenomena is aerodynamic heating. Any body traveling through any fluid (air is a fluid of very low density) experiences friction, or the impact of particles of the fluid on the body. As Mach number increases, these collisions become more frequent and energetic. As a result, part of the kinetic energy of those collisions is converted into thermal energy, or heat.

Heating is a difficult problem because it can weaken the materials the body is made from leading to structural failure. Space capsules like the Mercury or Apollo overcame this problem using thick heat shields made from ablative materials. These shields are designed to absorb the heat and break off carrying that heat away. The Space Shuttle uses more advanced heat tiles that can absorb tremendous amounts of heat, but these are expensive to apply and maintain. Another possible solution is to circulate a cold liquid or gas through the aircraft and along the surfaces most susceptible to heating (the nose and wing leading edges, for example). The liquid acts as a heat sink absorbing some of that thermal energy. One possible fluid to use is the vehicle's own fuel since hypersonic vehicles will likely be fueled by liquid hydrogen or some other cryogenically-cooled liquid. However, this approach is also complicated, expensive, and requires careful fuel management to avoid stability problems.

Assuming we can develop materials to withstand these high temperatures or techniques to minimize their influence, the key to hypersonic flight is developing practical engines that can fly at these speeds. Surprisingly, the kinds of engines best suited to flight under these conditions are deceptively simple. The engines on most jet aircraft we fly are called turbojets or turbofans. What these engines must do to generate thrust is compress the air coming into the engine so that fuel can be injected and the mixture burned. At subsonic speeds, the air is simply not compressed enough for combustion to occur, so a series of rotating blades is needed to provide that compression. At supersonic speeds, however, the air is already sufficiently compressed merely by being "rammed" into the engine at high speed. This kind of engine, basically a tube with a fuel injector in the middle, is called a ramjet (for ram-air compression). Not only is the ramjet much simpler than the turbojet, but it becomes more fuel efficient than the turbojet at about Mach 3.

By Mach 4 or 5, however, the efficiency of the ramjet suffers because the engine can't suck the air in fast enough and slow it to subsonic speed for combustion to occur. The excess air flow spills out around the engine inlet creating enormous drag. Instead, a new type of engine in which combustion occurs at supersonic speeds is needed. This kind of engine is called the scramjet (for supersonic combusting ramjet). NASA's X-43 Hyper-X program will soon test fly a scramjet engine at speeds possibly as high as Mach 10. The problem with both ramjets and scramjets is that they must already be in motion to work. When at rest, there is no compressed air being forced into them so they can generate no thrust. Thus, these engines have not found much use in aircraft, although ramjets are commonly used in missiles since they are often boosted to high speeds by rockets.

To get around this problem, some have proposed developing "hybrid" engines with rotating blades (like in the turbojet) for operations at low speed that are retracted to create a ramjet at high speeds. By varying the nozzle geometry to change the pressure within the engine, a ramjet can also be converted into a scramjet at even higher speeds. Recent research at NASA has focused on this type of dual ramjet-scramjet engine. Yet another approach is the pulse-detonation engine (PDE) that produces thrust through repeated detonations. The theory goes that an amount of fuel is injected into the engine and ignited to produce a momentary surge forward. This process is repeated at some low frequency to generate a continuous thrust. Aside from some well-publicized sightings of the "donuts-on-a-rope" contrails, little evidence has emerged to suggest that anything more than basic research has been conducted into developing or using the PDE.



The name "Aurora" first appeared in a 1985 budget document with a line by that name slated to receive $80 million in FY 1986 and $2.2 billion in FY 1987. Since the item appeared just after the TR-1, many conjectured that this project was a high-speed aircraft to replace the SR-71. As early as 1979, the Air Force had begun studying a "...Mach 4, 200,000-ft.-altitude aircraft that could be a follow-on to the Lockheed SR-71 strategic reconnaissance vehicle in the 1990s."

The Air Force, NASA, and several aerospace contractors undertook design studies of Mach 5 aircraft throughout the early and mid-1980s perhaps supplying the basic information needed to develop such a concept. The principal difficulties these studies had to address were the development of engines able to power an aircraft at speeds exceeding Mach 5 and developing structures capable of surviving the intense aerodynamic heating experienced at such high speeds.

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If it does exist, many conjecture that the Aurora may look something like the Mach 3 XB-70 Valkyrie or NASA's cancelled X-30 National Aerospace Plane (NASP). Both vehicles were wedge-shaped with delta wings of small area. Both combated heating issues by circulating onboard fuel along surfaces experiencing the greatest heat fluxes. While the XB-70 was propelled by conventional jet engines, the X-30 was to have been powered by advanced ramjet or scramjet engines using cryogenic fuels to operate at speeds exceeding Mach 5.

Based on this technological progression and close scrutiny of the US budget, many observers are convinced that the US Air Force was able to develop, build, and test a large high-speed aircraft by the early 1990s. Shortly thereafter, reports of loud sonic booms and sightings of strange contrails over Great Britain and southern California began to surface. Some believe these reports provide further evidence of a very high-speed aircraft using some exotic form of propulsion.

The US government has repeatedly denied the existence of an aircraft called Aurora or any similar follow-on aircraft to replace the SR-71. Since the evidence supporting the Aurora is nothing more than circumstantial or pure conjecture, there is little reason to contradict the government's position.

Data below estimated and completey conjectural
Last modified 11 March 2006


First Flight

possibly late-1980s

Service Entry


existence unconfirmed
CREW: possibly two: pilot and systems officer





Wing Root unknown
Wing Tip




Length 115 ft (35 m)
Wingspan 65 ft (20 m)
Height 19 ft (6 m)
Wing Area 3,200 ft2 (300 m2)
Canard Area

not applicable



Empty 65,000 lb (29,480 kg)
Typical Load unknown
Max Takeoff 157,000 lb (71,215 kg)
Fuel Capacity internal: 88,000 lb (39,920 kg)
external: not applicable
Max Payload

4,000 lb (1,815 kg)

Powerplant possibly turbofan engines for subsonic flight and ramjets, scramjets, or pulse detonation engines for supersonic flight
Thrust unknown



Max Level Speed at altitude: possibly Mach 5 to Mach 8 (some suggest up to Mach 20)
at sea level: unknown
Initial Climb Rate unknown
Service Ceiling 131,000 ft (40,000 m)
Range 8,000 nm (15,000 km)
g-Limits unknown



Gun none
Stations none
Air-to-Air Missile none (although some suggest a long-range AAM like the AIM-54 Phoenix might be carried)
Air-to-Surface Missile none
Bomb none
Other cameras, IR sensors, other recon sensors



Aurora Possible high-speed advanced reconnaissance platform


existence unconfirmed


United States (US Air Force)



Project Aurora / Senior Citizen





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