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Scientists ready the X-37B unmanned orbital vehicle. The U.S. Air Force is using the space plane for unknown purposes.  (Source: EPA)

The X-37B sat in a silo earlier today.  (Source: EPA)

As evening set, the super-high tech craft launched in about as stealthy fashion is possible when using an Atlas V rocket.  (Source: EPA)

A rendering shows what the X-37B might look like in orbit.  (Source: EPA)
Is the X-37B the future of space flight? Maybe, but the Air Force sure isn't saying

The X-37B's curious tale began in 1999 when NASA contracted Boeing's Phantom Works (Calif.) division to build an unmanned space airplane.  The project was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in September, 2004.  The NASA X-37A was redesigned in 2006 by a secret U.S. Air Force research unit, completing the current design, dubbed the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).

The craft was recently completed and has a 4.5 meter wingspan with a length of 8.9 meters.  It comes equipped with kerosene and hydrogen peroxide fuel tanks, an experimental bay, a large navigation "brain", and likely other more secret components.

Thursday night the OTV hurled into space in what appeared to be a clean launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  The X-37B OTV was carried on an Atlas V rocket, a relatively inexpensive rocket that has an extremely reliable track record.

What's it doing in space?  Your guess is as good as anyone else's.  And guesses tend to range from "deploying spy satellites" to "maintaining spy satellites".

Speaking to reporters, Gary Payton, Air Force deputy under secretary for space systems, confessed that there was indeed a secretive launch.  He comments, "Well, you can't hide a space launch, so at some point extra security doesn't do you any good."

The OTV will remain in orbit for nine months and then will make a landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.  So is it doing something with spy satellites?  Payton would only guardedly remark, "On this flight the main thing we want to emphasize is the vehicle itself, not really, what's going on in the on-orbit phase because the vehicle itself is the piece of news here."

Payton didn't exact make any bold predictions of success either.  He comments, "In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back for sure.  It depends on the progress we make with the on-orbit experiments and the on-orbit demonstrations."

The X-37B project is the culmination of undisclosed hundreds millions in defense spending.  Will all that investment be worth it?  Only a select handful of Air Force and government officials will be privy to the knowledge to make that assessment.

If there's one thing that's one clear about the X-37B project, it's that it aims to take a different approach to space exploration and utilization.  And it makes it clear that the U.S. isn't ready to relinquish its domination of space quite yet.


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Military > NASA
By Lord 666 on 4/23/2010 9:43:16 AM , Rating: 3
This is the way the Shuttle was meant to be operated.

When the control is under true military control, less nonsense and much faster design times.

I'm all for collapsing NASA to fall under USAF




RE: Military > NASA
By abel2 on 4/23/2010 9:55:55 AM , Rating: 1
amen. enough political shenanigans and commercial bs. just give it to the military and it gets done.


RE: Military > NASA
By mcnabney on 4/26/2010 9:04:58 AM , Rating: 2
I would point out that designing a small unmanned vehicle that is launched on an Atlas V is about as similar to the large, manned shuttle and booster operation that NASA runs as the model rockets that I shot off in high school.

Give credit where credit is due. Manned space flight is hard. Choosing the reusable vehicle route is even harder.


RE: Military > NASA
By ksherman on 4/23/2010 10:02:27 AM , Rating: 1
The huge Stargate fan in me agrees! Remember those painful episodes when civilians got involved?!


RE: Military > NASA
By Spivonious on 4/23/10, Rating: 0
RE: Military > NASA
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 4/23/2010 10:18:43 AM , Rating: 2
No, a lot of the crew come from other branches too, Like the Navy. Watch the movie "The right stuff" it will help you... :)


RE: Military > NASA
By jhb116 on 4/25/2010 6:39:49 PM , Rating: 3
No - NASA garners recruits from all of the services as well from Universities. The military is one of the very few places to get high performance jet pilots.

I disagree with making it a part of the AF. NASA's role, however, should be reduced to a research agency specializing in aero and astronautics. We need an R&D house to push the limits of capabilities which NASA use to be good at when it was "light on its feet" and wasn't drowned in bureaucratic red tape.


RE: Military > NASA
By Yames on 4/26/2010 10:53:39 AM , Rating: 3
NASA has to civilian for several reasons.

One is the projects like the station, which are in part/whole intended to build foreign relations.

But the original reason it was made civilian is that we do not threaten other countries doing space based research over their land, and in cases where a civilian craft needs to land on foreign land/sea.


RE: Military > NASA
By bigbrent88 on 4/23/10, Rating: 0
RE: Military > NASA
By Lord 666 on 4/23/2010 11:19:33 AM , Rating: 5
Right, they TOOK a design and DID something with it versus the committees and academics at NASA.


RE: Military > NASA
By Harinezumi on 4/23/2010 11:38:54 AM , Rating: 4
Then again, we have no idea how much it cost to develop, how much it costs to launch, or how much it costs to operate. Or, for that matter, whether it does what it's supposed to do or how well it does it.

When a civilian agency screws up, the citizens find out about it and can pressure their representatives to do something about it. When the military screws up, it's classified.


RE: Military > NASA
By nafhan on 4/23/2010 1:41:48 PM , Rating: 4
A civilian agency doesn't even need to screw up to get the money taken away from it. You just need a politician willing to transfer money from science to welfare or something that he thinks will get him more votes.
In this case, at least the US is ending up with a reusable launch vehicle, and the time and money put into developing the X-37 isn't getting thrown out the window.


RE: Military > NASA
By 85 on 4/23/10, Rating: 0
RE: Military > NASA
By 85 on 4/23/2010 4:04:51 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
When the military screws up, it's classified.


perhaps, but there are budgets from day one! Even in the classified world there are checks on these things to make sure money isn't being wasted. It's called "Fraud Waste & Abuse"

Besides, if these things weren't in place you would see all the 4star generals covering up sex scandals and driving 911s with USAF government license plates.


RE: Military > NASA
By 85 on 4/23/10, Rating: 0
RE: Military > NASA
By Jeffk464 on 4/23/2010 11:20:04 PM , Rating: 3
ya right, four star generals get driven around and fly on business jets. Like they would lower themselves to driving a Porsche. :)


RE: Military > NASA
By Bateluer on 4/23/2010 1:23:53 PM , Rating: 3
I believe you're misinformed. Part of the reason for the Shuttle Program's massive reduction in effectiveness and number of missions flown was military involvement, basically turning the Shuttle into a space truck.

I'm ex-USAF myself, and there are some things the military does extremely well. Scientific research is not one of them, unless said research can be used for blowing things up.


RE: Military > NASA
By porkpie on 4/23/2010 2:09:50 PM , Rating: 2
"Part of the reason for the Shuttle Program's massive reduction in effectiveness and number of missions flown was military involvement"

Eh? This isn't true at all. The shuttle never met its mission goals because it never met its design goals. It turned out to take far more work, time, and money to refit it between launches than original estimates. In fact, by some estimates recovering components like the SRBs is just a PR move; it would be cheaper and faster to rebuild them from scratch between launches.


RE: Military > NASA
By maven81 on 4/25/2010 10:40:58 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
The shuttle never met its mission goals because it never met its design goals.


And the military had no involvement in those design goals professor? There was a time when ALL military launches were supposed to have been carried out by the shuttle. As in delta and atlas were meant to retired. It wasn't until the shuttle started flying that the USAF realized this wasn't such a great idea, and backed out. (Though it had still launched at least a dozen military payloads in the 80s).
Interestingly this was also true on the soviet side with the Buran shuttle. They did some calculations and realized that the US shuttle could never be as cost effective as it was advertised, so they assumed it was being subsidized due to some nefarious military application. This meant that they duplicated the US design despite the objections of the scientists, who saw no use for such a system.
I suggest you stop talking on this subject before you embarrass yourself further.

(cue whiny know it all response).


RE: Military > NASA
By delphinus100 on 4/23/2010 2:49:17 PM , Rating: 2
And was not the Shuttle originally meant to be a 'space truck?'

One can well argue its actual (as opposed to the originally intended) cost effectiveness, but whether the payloads are Earth satellites (which it did),space station components (which it did), a launcher for unmanned deep space craft (which it did, in the form of Magellan and Galileo) or manned deep space craft (which it did not do, but there were certainly proposals*), it was...a truck.

And trucks are good. We can't do much over the long term, on expendables. We still need a better orbital truck. If the X-37 helps lead to that, it's an outcome to be welcomed.

* http://www.astronautix.com/craft/earccess.htm


RE: Military > NASA
By drycrust3 on 4/23/2010 2:52:03 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
When the control is under true military control, less nonsense and much faster design times. I'm all for collapsing NASA to fall under USAF


I disagree, it comes down to the management philosophy and how much you care about the consequences if something goes wrong. When I worked in a government department (in New Zealand) it was commonly said "this would be done better / differently if this was a private business" because the private company would care about the consequences more than a government department.
If you look at that new multi-role fighter plane, you can see a management philosophy which is "we are right regardless of the consequences", which is just a small step away from a disaster, usually with people loosing their lives, and often with them loosing them in large numbers.
Yes, I realise this is being designed and built by private contractors, but the problem came from the start when the military believed they could build one plane that did everything cheaper than 3 or 4 more or less specialist planes and there weren't any proper checks carried out to ensure it was really feasible. Now they are in the situation where they are spending more and more money and not actually got anything like what they wanted at the start because they didn't think there were consequences.


RE: Military > NASA
By zixin on 4/24/2010 11:41:35 AM , Rating: 2
Obviously you don't know the history of the shuttle. NASA needed political backing for the shuttle and had no choice but to go the military. The air force dictated requirements that required a re-design and made the shuttle so expensive to operate. Besides, you think the military is any better at managing finances then NASA? The only reason we keep talking about NASA is because its records are public. Do you know how much it took to develop the new space plane or how much it took to maintain it and launch it? It might not be much better than the shuttle.


RE: Military > NASA
By maven81 on 4/25/2010 10:46:04 AM , Rating: 2
Because the military never has cost overruns and blown schedules? Are you serious? I suggest you look up some military space programs and see how well they've done. There are missions that are now over 5 years behind schedule and billions over budget. You just don't tend to hear about it since often they get a blank check.

I'll agree with you on one thing... if the civilian program was FUNDED like the military was, then we'd be in business!


RE: Military > NASA
By Yames on 4/26/2010 1:49:54 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, look at the F22 raptor.


Impressive
By nafhan on 4/23/2010 9:43:51 AM , Rating: 2
I wonder why they need it up there for nine months? Maybe endurance testing for some sort of space based weapons system? Launch it at the start of a crisis and leave it up there until they need it...




RE: Impressive
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 4/23/2010 10:17:00 AM , Rating: 4
They need it up there for Nine months so it can give birth to a baby ship without anyone knowing...

I would guess endurance testing. However, since unmanned why would you run short missions?


RE: Impressive
By NicodemusMM on 4/23/2010 10:57:00 AM , Rating: 4
Can you think of a better place for the general to hide a preggers mistress?


RE: Impressive
By SandmanWN on 4/23/2010 11:37:39 AM , Rating: 2
It takes about 7-9 months to reach Mars.
Could be nothing more than a way to test equipment that could be used for a Mars mission.


RE: Impressive
By porkpie on 4/23/2010 1:31:48 PM , Rating: 4
"It takes about 7-9 months to reach Mars."

We could get there in six weeks, if Obama would fund a crash program to validate VASIMR ... or in even less time, in a nuclear thermal rocket.

Getting a manned mission anywhere but the moon on chemical propulsion is an exercise in futility.


RE: Impressive
By geddarkstorm on 4/23/2010 12:18:50 PM , Rating: 2
This is an experimental test vehicle. It isn't doing anything secret like that, because they don't even know if the vehicle itself can work, this is the first time it's been used in space. And it's unmanned, so we're talking a lot of computer/command/protocol testing to do.

All these conspiracy theories are hilarious. It's too early for that, those might start next launch or a few launches afterward. For now, gotta make sure the ship'll fly. Besides, as a technological demonstrator, this thing is highly unlikely itself to go into mass production unless it just works out that friggin well.


RE: Impressive
By nafhan on 4/23/2010 1:30:15 PM , Rating: 1
Hmmm, I don't think wondering if a USAF project could be used in a weapons system is much of a conspiracy. :) The spacecraft itself is obviously not a weapon, but it would make an effective weapons delivery or reconnisance platform.
Anyway, if they were just testing if it could fly, they wouldn't leave it up there for nine months; it would go up, do a few orbits, and land. I also doubt they need 9 months to test the computers as most (not all) of that has already been done much more cheaply and safely on the ground.
My guess is that whatever they are eventually planning for this thing, it will likely involve extended time in orbit.


RE: Impressive
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 4/23/2010 2:11:42 PM , Rating: 4
"I also doubt they need 9 months to test the computers as most (not all) of that has already been done much more cheaply and safely on the ground."

Lab testing and real world testing can be and often are two different things. They got it to work in the lab now they must see if it will work in real world. Since it cost XXX dollars to launch it into space you might as well run every test several times... then run them again after it has been up there for a long time. The goal to have the same result. If they vary to much you have issues.


RE: Impressive
By nikolasboole on 4/23/2010 9:35:57 PM , Rating: 2
Considering that the x37b is a highly maneuverable space plane, I'm guessing that its main purpose for being in space right now is to get a good grasp of its operational ability, how well it meets its requirements, and where it needs improvement before moving on to a less experimental design phase. Looking at the extensive heat shielding and the upward curve of the bow, (compared to the shuttle, with a relatively flat belly and heat shielding only suitable for reentry) I would assume that the x37 is going to spend a lot more time grazing along the upper atmosphere. Drawing on the canceled DynaSoar spaceplane project, a mission goal is possibly to skip along the atmosphere, allowing for a low-velocity low-earth orbit. It looks like it could be a big step in space flight. It uses a relatively inexpensive launch platform able to stay up for extended periods despite also being able to handle a fair amount of atmospheric friction (while still reentering slowly enough that it needs no visible shielding on the leading edge of the ruddervators) so it will probably spend most of its time in higher orbits, which isn't surprising given how much of the plane seems to be taken up by its fuel and compact engine.
So... I'd guess it's being put through a range of likely flight scenarios- changing course, skipping on the atmosphere in DynaSoar fashion, and probably navigating too and from other satellites under automatic control (similar to its automatic landing sequence). I'd assume that it has a payload of test equipment, so with no crew or robotic arm, it won't do too much interacting with the satelites (at best it might couple with a satellite to modify the satellite's orbit). It'll certianly run through a number of different orbits. Not a very threatening plane, and with a payload of test equipment, I doubt there's any room left for weapony or reconnaissance gear. Pretty cool thing, I think.


RE: Impressive
By US56 on 4/25/2010 1:35:32 PM , Rating: 2
It's cute but not that impressive. It would be the first orbital "X-Plane" and a partial realization of the program goals of the X-20 Dynasoar which was conceived more than fifty years ago. The AF may have taken the X-37 program over to assuage what must have been immense frustration on the part of AF brass at having their space ambitions thwarted for so many years while a larger program would invite too much attention. It appears to be an assemblage of off-the-shelf technology and probably not anything more than a capability demonstrator. It's boosted by a big, expensive, expendable launcher inside a big, fat aerodynamic shroud so doesn't advance technology in any way in that respect. The only unique capability it would seem to have is to potentially retrieve something which was not originally intended to be recovered given the eventuality that the Shuttle won't be available. That and the fact that it is designed to stay on orbit for up to nine months is intriguing. For the first flight it would seem that the AF would want to demonstrate the ability to re-enter and return to a planned location at an early opportunity so the statement about not knowing when it will come back seems just a nicer way to say it's classified. Wonder if it will make a distinctive double sonic boom like the Shuttle returning? Readers in the Southwest U.S., listen up! It should be reminiscent of the mystery sonic booms of the early nineties.


Redundant
By wiz220 on 4/23/2010 11:28:24 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not sure I understand why the X-37 would be used to deploy satellites. Why wouldn't they just deploy the satellite straight from the Atlas V? The extra step seems redundant. Now, if it is going to capture satellites for servicing I suppose that would make sense.




RE: Redundant
By bigbrent88 on 4/23/2010 11:45:05 AM , Rating: 2
Could it capture other nations satellites, maybe do recon on active sats and bring in decommissioned ones?


RE: Redundant
By wiz220 on 4/23/2010 11:54:14 AM , Rating: 2
Indeed, that could be the goal.


RE: Redundant
By porkpie on 4/23/2010 2:07:10 PM , Rating: 4
Why would you want to bring in a decommissioned satellite? Far cheaper to simply deorbit it. As far as capturing an opponent's satellite; the US isn't going to learn anything interesting from a Chinese or Russian satellite, and there are much easier and more effective ways of simply taking them offline.


RE: Redundant
By bigbrent88 on 4/23/2010 2:28:29 PM , Rating: 2
So basically this is an offensive weapon? There is no other purpose for this thing to be flying around, unless it has to do with opponents satellites.


RE: Redundant
By porkpie on 4/23/2010 2:50:23 PM , Rating: 2
Once its orbital parameters become public (probably in a few days), I'll surmise what I think its for. Equatorial? Orange-slice polar? Highly eccentric? You can tell quite a bit about a mission by what shape orbit its placed in.

Right now it could be anything from a testbed for THOR or a space-based energy weapon, to an reconnaissance platform intended for ultralow insertions in which a normal satellite would decay too rapidly.


RE: Redundant
By delphinus100 on 4/23/2010 2:56:23 PM , Rating: 2
Would those nations not notice?

Especially as:

We have a history of trying to recover other people's lost military assets (Glomar Explorer) and...

There doesn't appear to be anything particularly stealthy about the X-37 (nothing B-2ish in its shape, and such a shape and radar absorbent materials are probably not compatible with re-entry aerodynamics and heating), so it could well be tracked by radar.

If you observed it approaching one of your birds, well...


RE: Redundant
By porkpie on 4/23/2010 3:18:04 PM , Rating: 1
Radar? In NEO, you could easily observe it with a strong pair of binoculars. And if you can match orbits, you don't need something like this to take out a satellite ... a loose bolt or two will do the job much easier and more thoroughly.

The only way this could conceivably be meant to attack enemy satellites is via some form of directed energy weapon...but even here, I think the benefits of a ground based platform would far outweigh what you'd save in atmospheric losses from this approach.


By Earthmonger on 4/23/2010 7:37:29 AM , Rating: 5
That last image; the rendering; looks like it's about to launch Windows on the unsuspecting masses of Earth. God help us all!

Maybe it'll crash at boot and narrowly avoid the premature birth of SkyNet.




By stirfry213 on 4/23/2010 10:26:47 AM , Rating: 1
I'd rate you up, but you're already at 5.

I'll just say thanks for the laugh!


By Xenoterranos on 4/23/2010 11:03:05 AM , Rating: 5
Ahem, wouldn't that be sky.NET?


By MrFord on 4/23/2010 11:20:33 AM , Rating: 4
If it's the case, we'll have a couple minutes to react while every bots has to download Framework 3.5 in all it's 250Mb glory.


X37 vs Orion/Constellation cancellation
By BernardP on 4/23/2010 10:30:17 AM , Rating: 2
Could the X37 be adapted for transporting astronauts? Could there be a link with the recent Orion/Constellation cancellation?

No need to develop a brand-new launcher+capsule if a retrievable space plane is about to become available.




By JediJeb on 4/23/2010 10:58:40 AM , Rating: 2
I thought that on the last story about it, but now in the photo you can see just how small it really is.

Would be nice though to take this as a proof of concept and be able to scale it up to a size that would carry people.

I am wondering though that with the kerosene/peroxide fuel tanks on it, will they be using a higher powered braking engine for making the re-entry velocity much lower so that friction heating is less of a problem? If you can kill off most of your velocity, then more of less freefall from orbit you would experience very little frictional heating thus negating the need for so much heat shielding.


By delphinus100 on 4/23/2010 3:02:06 PM , Rating: 2
Take a look:

http://luckybogey.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/h_x3...

As I've noted to other people, you could well fit it in a two-car garage.

You might fit one or two people in there in a coffin-like manner (not a good position, when perched vertically on an Atlas). Not my idea of a passenger carrying vehicle.

Scale it up? Maybe. But that brings in a host of other technologies, especially a larger launcher that no one happens to have in their back pocket...


Is this a part of PGS?
By justjc on 4/23/2010 6:53:08 PM , Rating: 2
I just read that the US is working on making Prompt Global Strike weapons, making it possible to hit any target within 60 minutes. It shouldn't be to hard to outfit a X-37B like craft to make it happen.

Would also fit nicely with the weapon being introduced in 2014 and ready to be deployed in 2017 along with the X-51 hypersonic cruise missile.




RE: Is this a part of PGS?
By zmatt on 4/24/2010 4:57:51 PM , Rating: 2
If this is just a proof of concept model, notice the X designator, then I wouldn't be surprised if they rolled out a production unit that was capable of just this. One of the stated goals of the air force is to rebuild and maintain the nuclear force, since the military is actually shrinking in manpower, an unmanned quick launch vehicle like this that could launch a cruise missile to anywhere would be invaluable.

We already have lasers on a 747 testbed, and a small air defense version in the Army. fitting directed energy weapons to fighters, and craft like this is the next logical step. The chemical laser on the ABL is poorly suited to small craft, so electrical lasers that are more advanced than our current ones would be needed.


RE: Is this a part of PGS?
By Skilty on 4/26/2010 8:48:26 AM , Rating: 2
What is to stop the government leaving 50 of these up there moving them near enemy satellites and blow the fuel tank. No beam weapons just a simple explosion to knock out enemy birds. Probably does not contravene any existing treaties as it wouldn't be classed as a weapons platform.

Of course you could put a small nuke or conventional payload in there and leave it up there until you need it and then launch it at a target.

I am based in the UK, we are currently working on an extra powerful slingshot and we may think about an effective weapons platform for the Type 45 destroyers cos PAAMS sure don't work, we love Aegis, all is forgiven :-)
The potential uses for small to medium size payloads are huge and in some cases worrying.


Acutally a Russian liquid fuel engine
By Brazos on 4/23/2010 8:06:01 AM , Rating: 2
The Atlas V rocket uses a RD-180 engine (Russian design) and is fueled by a kerosene / LOX mixture. It's capable of having solid fuel boosters attached but I didn't seen any in the launch photos.




By delphinus100 on 4/23/2010 3:05:02 PM , Rating: 2
Correct. It can, but it just wasn't necessary at this payload weight.


By General Disturbance on 4/23/2010 9:33:13 AM , Rating: 2
People, it's a shem! It looks exactly like a shem!




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