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X-37B before the latest launch May 20th 2016 marks exactly a year since the launch of the Boeing X-37 mission (launch designation USA-261) when the X-37B OTV unmanned spacecraft was delivered to low Earth orbit. It was the fourth launch of this type with the first one launched in 2010 but up until these days not all questions about this spacecraft had been answered. Boeing X-37 also known as Orbital Test Vehicle, OTV is a small orbital unmanned spaceplane. It is launched by a rocket and lands using the lifting force produced by its wings like an airplane. Boeing started this project in 1999 by a contract with NASA and US Air Force. The initial cost of the project was $192 million contributed in different proportions by NASA, USAF and Boeing, and after the first success Boeing received a new $301 million contract to continue the development. X-37B on the runway Generally, the project is based on more than 30 years of experience gained from the Space Shuttle Orbiter program. Initially X-37 was intended to be delivered to orbit inside a Space Shuttle cargo bay then approach malfunctioning satellites for repairs (X-37 is 9 m long while the length of a Shuttle is 37 m), but later the using of Shuttles was deemed too expensive, and X-37 was re-designed for rocket delivery. In 2006 USAF declared that they would develop a new independent design of an X-37 variant called X-37B OTV. X-37B was supposed to be capable of staying in orbit for up to 270 days. A USAF secretary stated that the project will be focused on “reducing risks, experiments, and developing a working concept of reusable spacecraft in order to achieve the long term goals of space exploration”. Spaceplanes comparison Finally it was decided that X-37B would be delivered to orbit by Atlas-V rockets, and for landing and maintenance purposes, the old Space Shuttle hangars and runways at the Kennedy Space Center would be used. All this said, the specific goals of the program are classified. All we know is that it’s used for “testing of technology for USAF reusable space platform”. Supposedly, they test onboard electronic flight systems, navigation, heat protection and re-entry capabilities. The current mission of X-37B officially has something to do with testing of a new version of Hall-effect thruster (a variant of ion drive) which is supposed to be used on NASA satellites in the future. X-37 Spacecraft schematics USAF, however, has been for several times in the past accused of developing of space-based weapon systems and also of using X-37B as a spy satellite. In 2012 several accusation were raised against its involvement in espionage mission against Tiangong-1 – the first Chinese space station, but in fact they had been rather convincingly disproved by the comparison of the orbits of the two craft. In 2014, The Guardian quoted some experts who claimed that this craft tests espionage and surveillance systems. X-37 inner schematics Many questions arise because of the secrecy of the mission details, particularly in view of the prolonged duration of the mission. The current mission, for example should have lasted for no more than 200 days, but it’s been almost a year by now. If USAF really had been testing the systems listed in the official mission description it would have been in their best interests to land the spaceplane as soon as possible and start processing the experiment results. The prolonged nature of this mission suggests behavior peculiar to surveillance satellites. Of course keeping an aura of secrecy around the experiments that are currently being conducted by the military is not something unique. Perhaps X-37B really performs some peaceful experiments and has nothing to do with espionage. There’s still hope that new technologies won’t pave the way for a new space arms race even though a set of prerequisites for it is already in place. In the beginning of May The Washington Post published an article that directly accuses Russia and China of the development of anti-satellite technologies capable of attacking the US spacecraft.