darkstar in flight

How many UFO sightings might this have caused?


DarkStar was a Low-Observable High Altitude Endurance (LO-HAE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) system developed for the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

darkstar plan

In the RQ-3 name, the "R" is the Department of Defense designation for reconnaissance and "Q" means unmanned aircraft system. The "3" refers to the series of purpose-built remotely piloted aircraft systems. "Tier III minus" is a downgraded version of the "Tier III" DARPA specification for a larger and more complex LO-HAE aircraft. In June 1994, DARPA awarded an ACTD (Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration) contract to the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works to develop the system, with 50% subcontracted to Boeing to engineer the wings.

The RQ-3 DarkStar was an unmanned air vehicle with a 69-foot span and 15-foot length, made of graphite composite for low weight. Powered by a Williams FJ44 turbofan engine providing speeds greater than 250 knots, the UAV was designed with the intention of travelling 500 miles to an operational point, and operating for over 8 hours at 45,000 feet.

darkstar takeoff

At a planned $10 million a copy, the DarkStar was intended to provide affordable, near realtime, continuous, all-weather, wide-area surveillance. The DarkStar was fully autonomous: it could take off, fly to its target, operate its sensors, transmit information, return and land without human intervention. Human operators, however, could change the DarkStar's flight plan and sensor orientation through radio or satellite relay. The RQ-3 carried either an optical sensor or radar, and could send digital information to a satellite while still in flight.

The air vehicle was optimized for reconnaissance in highly defended areas, incorporating stealth technology to make it difficult to detect. This allowed it to operate within heavily defended airspace, unlike Northrup Grumman's RQ-4 Global Hawk, which was unable to operate except under conditions of air superiority.

The prototype made its first flight on March 29, 1996, but its second flight, on April 22, ended in a crash shortly after takeoff. After two years of modification, a more stable design (the RQ-3A) first flew on June 29, 1998, and made a total of five successful flights. Two additional RQ-3As were built before the Department of Defense canceled the DarkStar UAV program in January 1999.

According to a Report to the Secretary of Defense by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO/NSIAD-99-33), the Department of Defense terminated DarkStar after determining the UAV was neither aerodynamically stable nor meeting cost and performance objectives.

However, Lockheed Martin continued work on variants of this basic design after the program's cancellation. On June 16, 2006, the company unveiled the P-175 Polecat, a UAV prototype designed to demonstrate technologies that will later be applied to the U.S. Air Force's Long Range Strike program. Built using Lockheed Martin's own funds rather than a Defense Department contract, the Polecat has a 33% longer wingspan than DarkStar and is powered by two Williams FJ44 engines. The Polecat prototype (shown below) crashed on December 18, 2006.



  1. Lockheed Martin RQ-3 DarkStar —Andreas Parsch
  2. Darkstar Tier III Minus —John Pike & Steven Aftergood
  3. Lockheed Unveils Secret Polecat UAV Design —AVIATION WEEK