The Myasishchev M-55 (NATO codename of "Mystic") was originally developed to counter the cold War-eras threat posed by American high-altitude reconnaissance balloons launched into Soviet and Chinese airspace during the 1950s and 1960s. The original program begat the "Subject 34" aircraft of which only one was built. This aircraft was eventually evolved along two lines further into its career, resulting in the M-17 "Stratosphera" ("Mystic-A") "balloon destroyer" / reconnaissance platform and the M-55 "Geophysica ("Mystic-B") high-altitude reconnaissance and research platform. Two of the former were produced and five of the latter with the last aircraft arriving in 1994.
Enemy balloons could be released in allied airspace by the enemy and drift over Soviet territories. As they were powerless, carried about by the current, there were little, if any, telltale signs of their operation. Unless spotted visibly and intercepted, the balloons could cross the country and deliver critical reconnaissance information. As such, Subject 34 was envisioned with and armament of 2 x 23mm GSh-23 cannons (fitted to a dorsal turret) and provision for 2 x Air-to-Air Missiles (AAMs) to engage these targets as a balloon interceptor. However, when the American satellite program improved to the point that these balloons were no longer necessary, there proved little need for evolving the Subject 34 product. At any rate, the prototype was lost in a crash after conducting taxi tests during December of 1978.
Another offshoot of the design was pushed through for the reconnaissance role similar in mission scope to the American Lockheed U-2 spyplane. This aircraft was given a revised airframe and carried a single Rybinsk / Kolesov RD-36-51V series turbojet engine developed from the Tupolev 144 supersonic jet airliner's propulsion unit. A prototype achieved first-flight on May 26th, 1982 and was given the designation of M-17 "Stratosphera" in Soviet service. Once acknowledged by the West, the NATO codename became "Mystic-A". Besides setting a dozen aircraft records, this design also went on to serve in scientific research roles.
M-17 was itself modified to become the "M-17RN" high-altitude reconnaissance platform and, later, finalized as the M-55 "Geophysica". A first-flight in prototype form occurred on August 16th, 1988 and this fuselage differed in being longer than the original. Additionally, the single engine installation was given up in favor of a twin-engine, side-by-side approach - these being 2 x Soloviev D-30-10V turbofans. The wingspan of the mainplanes was reduced and there was improved support for onboard mission equipment (mainly sensors).
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Subject 34 (Proposed):
2 x 23mm GSh-23 cannons in dorsal turret
2 x Air-to-Air Missiles (AAMs)
M-17 / M-55:
No armament. Specialized data-collecting /research payload carried.
Subject 34 - Original balloon destroyer model; single example produced; lost to accident.
M-17 "Stratosphera" ("Mystic-A") - Dedicated high-altitude reconnaissance variant; fitted with 1 x Kolesov RD-36-51 turbojet engine; 2 examples produced.
M-17RN - Original designation of M-55 series; lengthened fuselage; twin-engine configuration; improved payload capabilities; reduced wingspan.
M-55 "Geophysica" - Atmospheric research platform; fitted with 2 x Soloviev D-30-10V turbofan engines; five examples produced.
M-55UTS - Two-seat, dual-control trainer platform with tandem seating.
M-55 "Geophysica 2" - Proposed improved research platform; never built.
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