Space Shuttle may
be dead, but the Air Force is looking to pick up the slack.
Last month they launched their secret
space plane, the X-37B, from a base from Florida. The
spacecraft is currently on the first part of a top secret nine month
mission that will end with a soft landing in California.So is
the X-37B the Air Force's first foray into creating the world's first
starfighter? Absolutely, not says the Air Force. Gary
E. Payton, under secretary of the Air Force for space programs
says that the plane carries "no offensive capabilities."
He states, "The program supports technology risk reduction,
experimentation and operational concept development."These
claims seem to be supported by new data from amateur star watchers.
Ted Molczan, a member of a skywatching team in Toronto, was among
those who spotted the secret craft and analyzed its course.
They found that like the Space Shuttle, it flew at a pretty typical
altitude of 255 miles above the Earth's surface and circled the Earth
every 90 minutes. Its course takes it as far north as 40
degrees latitude, just below New York City.The interesting
thing that Molczan noted was that the craft was passed the same point
exactly every four days -- a typical format followed by spy
satellites. And its trajectory took it past interesting
locations, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and North
Korea. Thus Molczan and other amateur observers are saying that
the Air Force is probably being honest about the craft's lack of
weapons, and it's probably testing high tech surveillance
equipment.If the X-37B indeed does not hold
space weapons, fans of high-tech weapons can soften their
disappointment with the news that the X-51A
Waverider hypersonic missile will conduct its first test
flight tomorrow.The new missile is designed to have a unique
profile from traditional ICBMs, to prevent nuclear powers like China
and Russia from mistaking the missile for a nuclear warhead.
The missile is to be launched from a B-52 Stratofortress bomber.The
almost wingless craft will use atmospheric oxygen to burn a mix of
ethylene and JP-7 fuel initially, before transitioning to pure JP-7
fuel. This is different that previous attempts, such as the
X-43A, which used hydrogen fuel. By ditching the need for
hydrogen the hypersonic platform becomes more promising
logistically. The new platform employs a bleeding edge Pratt &
Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine and also employs advanced
thermal protections.The missile will climb 70,000 feet before
descending at speeds in excess of Mach 6. Four test vehicles
currently exist -- there are no plans of recovering the missile after
the initial test. The hope is that it will keep transmitting
data though until impact.