Technology

Intriguing ‘Shark With Frickin’ Laser Beam ‘Art Appears On Exotic Test Jet

One of the two Scaled Composites stealthy Model 401 “Son of Ares” jets was spotted recently landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port fitted with a still curious, but now familiar ventral pod installed under the forward section of the fuselage. A whimsical depiction of a shark with what appears to be a laser strapped to its head – a reference to a well-known scene from the 1997 Mike Myers spy comedy Austin Powers – indicates it is related to a directed energy system of some kind. This is exactly what The War Zonewhich was the first to report on this nearly modification two years ago to the date, had previously posited, as you can read more about here.

@ Task_Force23

Twitter user @ Task_Force23 grabbed the shots of the aircraft, which has the US civil registration number N401XP and was using the callsign “Scat 71” at the time, on October 16 and was kind enough to share them with us. An L-39 Albatros jet trainer belonging to Gauntlet Aerospace, with the N-number N25PX, was observed flying close to N401XP likely acting as a chase plane or as part of a test itself.

N25PX, at bottom right, flying close to N401XP on October 16. @ Task_Force23
A clearer look at N25PX. @ Task_Force23

The most immediately eye-catching addition to the N401XP is the “sharks with freakin ‘laser beams attached their heads” artwork on the ventral pod. Scaled Composites, a famous cutting-edge aerospace design company that is currently a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, is well-known for adding tongue-in-cheek markings to their aircraft.

@ Task_Force23

The art on N401XP’s ventral pod is undoubtedly a reference to the scene in the clip below from the 1997 film Austin Powers.

In fact, the ‘Son of Ares’ moniker for these jets – which are also nicknamed Phobos and Deimos, the sons of Ares, the god of war, in Greek mythology – is a reference to Scaled Composites’ earlier experimental Agile Responsive Effective Support ( ARES) jet that was confirmed by a “World’s Greatest Dad” graphic that was spotted on the older aircraft in 2018, as you can read more about here. At various points, the ARES jet, which Scaled Composites continues to use for testing purposes, has also been seen with a “Chemtrail Tank” label poking fun at that conspiracy theory and a satellite communications dome on top of the fuselage painted to look like R2 -D2, the fan-favorite droid from the Star Wars franchise.

The pod seen yesterday on N401XP looks more or less unchanged from when it was first spotted on that aircraft in October 2020. It still features a wide intake link front, two small aerials, one black and one white, underneath it and a large exhaust pipe at the rear, which is angled downward.

In addition, to the laser shark motif painted on the side, there is now also a warning label that reads “JET BLAST – DANGER” with an arrow pointing to the exhaust nozzle. This suggested that the exhaust system is attached to an auxiliary power unit (APU) of some kind, but there are other possibilities, as well.

Though the new pictures we have of N401XP from October 16 don’t provide a clear look at the right side of the pod, an underside view clearly shows that an aperture that was present two years ago is still there, as well.

A look at the underside of N401XP on October 16. @ Task_Force23

N401XP otherwise looks to be largely in the same configuration, at least externally that it did two years ago, including a prominent ‘hump’ or ‘bulge’ underneath the fuselage right behind the ventral pod. The aircraft has notably gained two additional antennas on either side of the underside of the nose. At least one of those new antennas, along with another that was seen on the aircraft in 2020, is attached to a clearly demarcated section of the nose.

A close-up view of N401XP’s nose showing two new antennas, to the right and left, as well as a small white one that had been seen fitted previously. @ Task_Force23
From the side, it’s not entirely clear if the new antenna on the right side of the nose is attached to the visibly ‘sectioned’ portion of the nose or not, but the one on the left clearly is. @ Task_Force23

It’s not clear from the pictures we have from two years ago if this ‘sectioned’ nose was present on the jet then, too.

N401XP seen fitted with the ventral pod in October 2020. Steve Lee

Beyond the now clear connection of some kind to a laser directed energy system, how specifically the ventral pod is designed to work remains unclear. The pod could potentially contain a laser itself – although it’s not clear where the emitter might go. A likely possibility is that the laser could be directed out of the aperture on the right side. The pod and what is buried in the aircraft’s bays overhead could hold an APU used to independently power the laser. So this would be a configuration in which the air intake is at the front, the exhaust is downward out the rear, and possibly an emitter that fires out the side, with APU being buried in the bay above. This would be a remarkably compact and intriguing installation, although just how the high thermal loads that high-power lasers are associated with would be managed isn’t clear.

Model 401s flying together over Mojave. (Scaled Composites)

Then again, we could just be seeing components tied to a tertiary emitter system that is planned to be installed elsewhere in the aircraft, too, such as where the pilot is now in an unmanned variant (hence and even more direct Dr. Evil ‘sharks with lasers on their head ‘callback). The jet may not actually ever carry the laser itself, either, with the artwork on the pod simply being a reference to the plane’s use in some way in support of laser-related research work. Although this seems less likely due to the highly customized installation we are seeing now two years after it first appeared. And such a laser could even be sensor-related, not a laser weapon to swat-down hostile targets, for instance.

The two Scaled Composites Model 401s themselves were first developed to demonstrate various advanced, rapid, and low-cost design and manufacturing techniques as well as act as demonstrator support aircraft for undisclosed programs. They have since been employed for various testing purposes. In this role, the aircraft are regularly seen reconfigured for different tasks and have often been seen on flight tracking applications working in concert with the company’s high-flying Proteus testbed jet.

“Following initial performance envelope expansion, both aircraft conduct payload development testing for a wide variety of customers,” according to Scaled Composites’ website. “The aircraft are able to incorporate a diverse range of payload systems with over 80 cubic feet of internal payload volume and up to 2,000 pounds of payload weight capacity.”

To date, it’s unclear whether or not Northrop Grumman may be planning to market the Model 401, or variants or derivatives thereof, for general sale in any configuration. However, it seems very likely that this could be the case given that last year the company showed reporters a mockup of an unmanned version – it’s not clear if this simply reflected the pilotless configuration of the standard design or a new drone variant – as well as an entirely new drone derivative, known as the Model 437. You can read more about these developments here.

Artwork depicting the Model 437 design, at center, as well as a drone version of the Model 401 in the upper lefthand corner, among other crewed and uncrewed aircraft. Northrop Grumman / Scaled Composites via Steve Trimble / Aviation Week

The Model 401 has features that could be very beneficial for the employment of a laser of some kind. Its high dihedral wings would offer any such payload installed underneath the fuselage a greater than horizon-to-horizon horizon field of view without having to bank.

The aircraft’s underlying design is good for being able to loiter in a particular area at low speeds for extended periods of time, while also being able to make transits to and from a specific point at higher jet speeds. An uncrewed configuration would eliminate any mission duration limitations that a human pilot might impose, as well as potentially offer other unique capabilities to the overall mix.

There are definitely various laser and potentially laser-related development efforts that N401XP could be flying in support of in this configuration with the underbelly pod. Despite encountering hurdles over the years, the US Air Force, in particular, has a number of active programs focused on developing aircraft-mounted lasers for use as offensive and defensive weapons.

Artwork depicting an F-16 with the podded Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) laser directed energy weapon. Lockheed Martin

There is, of course, still no confirmed connection between N401XP in the configuration with the ventral pod and either of these programs, or any other aerial directed energy weapon efforts.

As The War Zone noted in 2020, whatever the purpose of the laser system fitted to N401XP might be, it could also be related to work on capabilities to protect against such directed energy weapons. Not long ago, one of the Son of Ares jets had been spotted with a mirror-like coating. Mirror-like finishes have now appeared in multiple forms on stealthy Air Force F-22 Raptors, F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, and F-117A Nighthawks, as well as US Navy F-35Cs – all belong to these services’ test and evaluation communities – as you can read more about here.

It is possible that the ventral pod seen on N401XP has to do with something completely different, too. And yes, it could be a misdirection or even a reference to our past article, although that seems very unlikely. Still, at least when taken at face value, the podded addition to the jet’s underside is even more likely to have something to do with lasers now than before.

As time goes on, the Model 401s will likely prove more pivotal to the future of air combat than most would have expected and they could even spawn production aircraft, laser-equipped or not.

Contact the author: joe@ thedrive.com

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