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A year in space with unknown goal


cicatrix
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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.

 

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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”.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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It is most likely for material production or endurance testing. It's for sending stuff to space, testing it, and getting it back to study how it fared. Stuff can include any sort of material, propulsion, electronic, optical, or transmission equipment, etc...  Most likely for use in future military space applications.

No other military mission profile makes any sense.

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3 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

A year-long exposition of nuke.

Didn't I mention material testing ? 

I don't see why you would want to expose a nuclear warhead to space for a year, though. Orbit is pretty much the worse place to preposition nuclear warheads.

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8 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

A year-long exposition of nuke.

No way, if it crashed somewhere and somebody noticed there was a nuke onboard, the political fallout would be catastrophic.

*edit*

oh I made a pun!

But on that note, catastrophic wouldn't even cover it if it broke up in mid air and scattered plutonium over someone elses backyard.

Edited by p1t1o
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3 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

If a prepared nuke - yes. Otherwise, "these are just RTG elements".

Gotta say no again, RTG does not contain weapons grade material, this would certainly be detectable in the debris - even if scattered in the upper atmosphere. 

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19 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

Exactly because.

Because what? You're not making any sense.

If the X-37B is for studying materials, then it could potentially be any material that has a military application. However, there is no need to put nuclear warheads in orbit because other methods of prepositioning them are safer, cheaper, and allow faster delivery.

Even if this was a plan, you would only be testing exposure of the confinement vessel or shielding in space. There would be no need to test the exposure of fissile material.

Quote

P.S.
Otherwise why don't do this on, say, ISS?

Because research on the ISS is public and open to international scrutiny, whereas X-37B is a USAF program. Any top secret material that you want to study on the ISS has to be manifested and can be observed by the international partners.

Edited by Nibb31
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18 minutes ago, Nibb31 said:

Because what? You're not making any sense.

You had said: "no more military purpose", I have suggested a more military purpose.
I don't declare this, it's just an assumption which seems to me enough reasonable..

18 minutes ago, Nibb31 said:

However, there is no need to put nuclear warheads in orbit because other methods

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractional_Orbital_Bombardment_System

18 minutes ago, Nibb31 said:

Even if this was a plan, you would only be testing exposure of the confinement vessel or shielding in space. There would be no need to test the exposure of fissile material.

If you make a nuke, it's enough to test its parts, why to test the whole assembly? Though there were thousands of nuclear tests.

18 minutes ago, Nibb31 said:

Because research on the ISS is public and open to international scrutiny,

So, there was no need to launch a supersecret spacedrone to test a new aluminium rack for cubesat equipment.

21 minutes ago, p1t1o said:

RTG does not contain weapons grade material, this would certainly be detectable in the debris

No need to put Pu239 of course. Rather than a, say, depleted U.

Edited by kerbiloid
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30 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

You had said: "no more military purpose", I have suggested a more military purpose.
I don't declare this, it's just an assumption which seems to me enough reasonable..

No you didn't. I said it was probably for testing materials and technology. You said it was for testing "nuke" (whatever that means), which is a subset of testing materials and technology. So we are saying the same thing. One isn't "more military" than another.

What I'm saying is that it makes no sense to test exposure of fissile material (if that's what you mean by "nuke"). That doesn't mean that the technologies that are being tested aren't of a military nature.

Quote

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractional_Orbital_Bombardment_System

If you make a nuke, it's enough to test its parts, why to test the whole assembly? Though there were thousands of nuclear tests.

So, there was no need to launch a supersecret spacedrone to test a new aluminium rack for cubesat equipment.

Orbital bombardment was an idea in the 60's that makes zero-sense today for a whole lot of reasons.

  • Most nuclear powers now have SSBN forces prepositioned all over the globe, which provide autonomous global strike capability. This is cheaper, stealthier, quicker, and safer than an orbital platform.
  • The USAF also has strategic bombers and land-based ICBMs which also provide global strike capability.
  • To strike from orbit, you have to wait until your orbital platform is properly positioned over the target. Depending on the inclination and period of the orbit, you might have to wait several hours or even days before you can launch the strike.
  • There is no stealth in orbit. Amateur astronomers can track most military satellites. Foreign intelligence agencies know exactly where your satellites are. Any foreign power with nuclear capability will take out your orbital bombardment sat preemptively or plan its first strike when your orbital platform is in its less favorable orbit.
  • Any warhead coming in from orbit will reenter faster and hotter and for a longer time than an ICBM, making it much easier to intercept.
  • Orbital weapon platforms are against international law.

So no, there is no reason to test the exposure of nuclear weapons in orbit, since there is no reason to deploy them to orbit in the first place. Even if the purpose was to test material or technologies for a nuclear weapon, an inert device would be perfectly good enough for testing, since any fissile material would be buried deep inside the warhead and would never be exposed to space in the first place.

Who's talking about aluminum racks? Military grade material can cover transmission technologies, antennas, transmission, optics, stealth materials, reflectors, propulsion, etc... They could even be growing cristals or making superconductors for some unrelated ground-based applications. 

Edited by Nibb31
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12 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

No need to put Pu239 of course. Rather than a, say, depleted U.

Do you mean a nuke with a depleted uranium core? Why would they spend millions of dollars sending a glorified paperweight into space for a year? 

My money is on surveillance, it was watching something.

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2 minutes ago, p1t1o said:

Why would they spend millions of dollars sending a glorified paperweight into space for a year? 

For example, to check how much will all this thing degrade after spending a year in orbital conditions.

7 minutes ago, Nibb31 said:

They could even be growing cristals or making superconductors for some unrelated ground-based applications. 

They could.

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3 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

For example, to check how much will all this thing degrade after spending a year in orbital conditions.

Eeeeeeeeh. Again, no reason to do that. No point in testing a nuke for exposure to a year of space because there is no scope (unless you believe that the US is literally a comic-book grade, steeple-fingered, cackling villain) for any requirement to keep nukes in space for a year. For one thing, its highly illegal, as in act-of-war illegal. And for another, its literally like holding a gun to the head of every country in the world. Hence the illegality. And for a third, nukes are dangerous, and space travel is dangerous. It would be highly risky thing to do to keep nukes in space long-term.

And as for materials testing, its a long way to go and a lot of money when you could just stick it in a vacuum chamber and shoot it with radiation.

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16 minutes ago, p1t1o said:

Do you mean a nuke with a depleted uranium core? Why would they spend millions of dollars sending a glorified paperweight into space for a year? 

My money is on surveillance, it was watching something.

Why would they spend millions of dollars to bring back a surveillance satellite after only a year in space? The only reason to bring stuff back is if you are testing it and you want to see what it looks like when it comes back, which means that it is not performing any kind of operational mission at all.

If it was carrying surveillance hardware, it would be cheaper to just launch a handful of surveillance sats with the same hardware and use them for several years until they die.

6 minutes ago, PB666 said:

If its hall effect you need a massive power supply, solar or rtg would be sticking out of the craft. 

It spends a year in space, so it most certainly has deployable solar panels.

14 minutes ago, kerbiloid said:

For example, to check how much will all this thing degrade after spending a year in orbital conditions.

But why would they spend millions of dollars to learn how a nuclear weapon degrades after spending a year in space when it makes no sense to put nuclear warheads in space in the first place?

Edited by Nibb31
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Just now, Nibb31 said:

Why would they spend millions of dollars to bring back a surveillance satellite after only a year in space? The only reason to bring stuff back is if you are testing it and you want to see what it looks like when it comes back, which means that it is not performing any kind of operational mission at all.

What can you test in space that you cant test on the ground?

I figured that you can put your newest, mostly spangly-shiny sensor tech onboard, put it on a duty cycle for a while, watching ISIS or Iran or whatever, then you bring it back down and put in even newer, fresh from the lab, much more shinier 2016-model sensor tech and rinse-repeat. Or launch on requirement with a tailor-made sensor suite.

If they were testing something, I would bet that it was the vehicle itself. Its just a long way to go and a lot of money to spend just to expose something to space for a year. Its would literally just sit there until its time to come back down. I figure it was up to something.

Heck, maybe there was a software glitch which prevented its original landing and it took them that long to fix it.

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5 minutes ago, p1t1o said:

And as for materials testing, its a long way to go and a lot of money when you could just stick it in a vacuum chamber and shoot it with radiation.

Not if the materials and technologies that you are testing only work in microgravity or if you want to see how they fare over longer timeframes.

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3 minutes ago, Nibb31 said:

Not if the materials and technologies that you are testing only work in microgravity or if you want to see how they fare over longer timeframes.

Well I can't argue with that. Reckon the vehicle itself is the most likely test article, but could be other materials as you say. I'm still betting on surveillance though.

As long as we're agreed its not a nuke of all things! :D

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14 minutes ago, p1t1o said:

What can you test in space that you cant test on the ground?

Lots of things. Microgravity manufacturing, stealth satellite coatings, optics, transmission technologies, orbital manoeuvering techniques, long duration exposure (vacuum chambers don't run for several years while bombarding with various electromagnetic sources).

Quote

I figured that you can put your newest, mostly spangly-shiny sensor tech onboard, put it on a duty cycle for a while, watching ISIS or Iran or whatever, then you bring it back down and put in even newer, fresh from the lab, much more shinier 2016-model sensor tech and rinse-repeat. Or launch on requirement with a tailor-made sensor suite.

If you're going to launch something, then launch it. Bringing it back only means that you have to make it more complicated, expensive, and probably smaller, than it has to be. For a surveillance mission, this makes no sense.

If you want an orbital surveillance platform, then instead of bring it back on the X-37B, save money and put it on a smaller rocket with a standard satellite bus. Or launch it on an Atlas V with enough fuel to stay up there for 20 years. Both options will cost much less than using the X-37B.

Quote

If they were testing something, I would bet that it was the vehicle itself. Its just a long way to go and a lot of money to spend just to expose something to space for a year. Its would literally just sit there until its time to come back down. I figure it was up to something.

Heck, maybe there was a software glitch which prevented its original landing and it took them that long to fix it.

It's on its 4th mission now since 2010, so the vehicle itself is proven. The previous mission actually spent nearly two years in space. I wouldn't be surprised if this one stayed up there for three years.

Edited by Nibb31
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LOL.

Russian military launch contains unmanifested payload which is able to change its orbit a bit? "OMG IT'S A SAT KILLER WE'RE ALL DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMED!!!"

USAF launches a top-secret mission with unknown payload, and after it lands, maintenance guys wear hazmat suits? "Nah, it's just a material science, nothing to see here, people, move along."

Typical. :D

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12 minutes ago, J.Random said:

Russian military launch contains unmanifested payload which is able to change its orbit a bit? "OMG IT'S A SAT KILLER WE'RE ALL DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMED!!!"

There is no doubt that both Russia and the US have sat inspection and killer spacecraft (probably China too). However, a spaceplane is a stupid design for a sat killer. 

Quote

USAF launches a top-secret mission with unknown payload, and after it lands, maintenance guys wear hazmat suits? "Nah, it's just a material science, nothing to see here, people, move along."

The hazmat suits are because of the hydrazine fumes. You really don't want to breath that stuff. Shuttle ground crews wore them too for post-landing operations. Even Apollo recovery crews and astronauts wore respirating gear around the capsule after splashdown.

Edited by Nibb31
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14 minutes ago, Nibb31 said:

(vacuum chambers don't run for several years while bombarding with various electromagnetic sources).

Well, I mean, building one that did would be easier/cheaper/more reliable than launching a giant rocket and a secret experimental spaceplane.

Doing a bit of googling, the general consensus is the same as it is here - surveillance or space exposure testing of some technology or other. Apparently surveillance of other space-based objects (sattelites, stations etc.) can be ruled out from the orbits it had.

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