A recently-declassified UK government report into UFO sightings is causing a bit of a kerfuffle after conspiracy theorists spotted what they believe is a reference to the legendary "Aurora" - a mysterious US black project which has been feeding the secret tech rumour mill for years.
The first clue from the 2000 report - entitled "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK" and which concludes pretty well that UFOs don't exist, as we previously reported - is buried in a working paper (PDF) under the heading "Exotic technologies":
Research and development on hypersonic technology is expanding, principally in the USA. The projected (USAF) priority plan is to produce unpiloted air-breathing aircraft with a Mach 8-12 capability and transatmospheric vehicles which can operate between the upper air-breathing and sub-orbital flight regimes, as well as highly supersonic vehicles at Mach 4 to 6.
There's more. Or rather, there's less, which amounts to more if you believe in the existence of Aurora. Another working paper - "'Black' and other aircraft as UAP events" - investigates the possibility of exotic aircraft being reported as UFOs. Three projects originally appeared in the document, although just the SR-71 Blackbird now remains. Two paragraphs have been struck from the document and two photographs, presumably of the two absent classified programmes, are also missing.
Spooky. The BBC showed the report to Bill Sweetman of Jane's Defence Review who concluded the MoD "identified two separate US 'Black' programmes that might have operated from the UK. It could be something they have reason to know about".
The Aurora programme kicked off at Lockheed's Skunkworks in 1987. It was intended as a replacement for the SR-71. The first flight occuring in 1989. It became operational in 1995. The UK's knowledge of it was based on the fact that the US used RAF airbase at Machrihanish, Strathclyde* - with its three-mile-long runway - as a staging post for Mach 4, 200,000ft high dashes home across the North Pole.
In August 1989, it was positively identified by "Chris Gibson, a Scottish oil-exploration engineer and, at the time, a member of the British Royal Observer Corps (ROC), was working on the oil rig Galveston Key in the North Sea when he noticed an aircraft in the shape of a pure isoceles triangle refuelling from a KC-135 Stratotanker alongside two F-111s."
The aircraft has also been spotted across the US, in Norway and the Netherlands, often to the accompaniment of a deafening sonic boom and its characteristic "donuts on a string" con trail - caused by its revolutionary scramjet propulsion plant...
And so on and so forth. Regular readers will by now be reminded of our recent analysis of the black-helicopter-scrambling Blackstar project, a "two-stage-to-orbit system that could place a small military spaceplane in orbit" which was pretty well shot down in flames by this analysis of the available data.
Aurora, too, has been subjected to a fair amount of sceptical scrutiny. According to the doubters, an alleged 1985 $455m budget allocation for the project was in fact for a range of black aircraft projects, under the umbrella title "Aurora". Furthermore, the former head of Lockheed's Skunkworks division, Ben Rich, claims in his book Skunk Works that Aurora was nothing more than a budgetary codename for the stealth project which eventually led to the B-2 Spirit.
There are, of course, no pictures of Aurora, no definitive video footage and no real concrete specifications, leading to widespread, and often wild, speculation about the beast's performance and appearance. Those of you who like your secret projects blacker than black are directed to this entertaining Aurora picfest, while there's plenty more background on the project here.
Whether Aurora ever existed or not as an individual aircraft, we may never know. The project was allegedly cancelled in 1992 by the then Department of Defense supremo Dick Cheney, so it seems unlikely that the excised black projects in the MOD's 2000 report refer to it.
In which case, what are they? F-117A? B-2?. Or something more sinister perhaps: anyone fancy taking the X-22 anti-gravity disc craft for a spin?®
*Highly improbable, since the base is right next to the Scottish town of Campbeltown and an enormous golf course and boasts no major facilities for advanced aircraft projects. It ceased military operations in 1995, but still acts as the local airport.
Back in 2000, a Chinook helicopter crash 10 miles from Machrihanish was attributed by some to "a massive jet wake into which the helicopter flew, causing the crew to lose control". The cause? Aurora, naturally.