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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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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.


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