Air Force sends mystery X-37B mini-shuttle back to space (Update 2)

Dec 11, 2012 by Marcia Dunn
This April 5, 2010 photo made available by the U.S. Air Force via NASA shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. Half of the Atlas V five-meter fairing is in the background. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, the Air Force launched the top-secret, unmanned mini-space shuttle from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force via NASA)

The military's small, top-secret version of the space shuttle rocketed into orbit Tuesday for a repeat mystery mission, two years after making the first flight of its kind.

The Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft Tuesday hidden on top of an Atlas V rocket. As if on cue, clouds quickly swallowed up the rocket as it disappeared out over the ocean.

It is the second flight for this original X-37B spaceplane. The craft circled the planet for seven months in 2010. A second X-37B spacecraft spent more than a year in orbit.

These high-tech mystery machines—29 feet long (eight meters)—are about one-quarter the size of NASA's old space shuttles and can land automatically on a runway. The two previous touchdowns occurred in Southern California; this one might end on NASA's three-mile(five kilometer)-long runway once reserved for the space agency's shuttles.

The military isn't saying much if anything about this new secret mission known as OTV-3, or Orbital Test Vehicle, flight No. 3. In fact, launch commentary ended 17 minutes into the flight and a news blackout followed.

But one scientific observer, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speculates the spaceplane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a testbed for future satellites. He dismisses rumors of "exotic ideas" for the X-37B as weaponry or shadowing a Chinese satellite.

While acknowledging he does not know what the spaceplane is carrying, McDowell said on-board sensors could be capable of imaging or intercepting transmissions of electronic emissions from terrorist training sites in Afghanistan or other hot spots. "All the sorts of things that spy satellites generally do," he said.

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The beauty of a reusable spaceplane is that it can be launched on short notice based on need, McDowell said.

What's important about this flight is that it is the first reflight.

"That is pretty cool," McDowell said, "reusing your spacecraft after a runway landing. That's something that has only really been done with the shuttle."

Now retired museum pieces, NASA's space shuttles stretch 122 feet (37 meters) long, and have 78-foot (24-meter)wingspans and weights of more than 170,000 pounds (77,111 kilograms). They were launched, from 1981 to 2011, with two strap-on booster rockets and an external fuel tank feeding three main engines. The X-37B wingspan is 15 feet (4.6 meters), and the 11,000-pound (5,000-kilogram), Boeing-built vessel requires the United Launch Alliance's hefty Atlas V for hoisting. It is solar powered.

The two previous secret X-37B flights were in 200-plus-(300-plus)-mile-high orbits, circling at roughly 40-degree angles to the equator, as calculated by amateur satellite trackers. That means the craft flew over the swatch between 40 degrees or so north latitude and 40 degrees or so south latitude.

That puts Russia's far north out of the spaceplane's observing realm, McDowell noted.

"It might be studying Middle Eastern latitudes or it might just be being used for sensor tests over the United States," he said.

McDowell speculates that this newest flight will follow suit.

The International Space Station, by comparison, orbits about 250 miles (400 kilometers)high but at a much steeper 51.6-degree inclination, or angle to the equator, that covers more territory.

The X-37B program, which dates back to 1999, is operated by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and geared toward space experimentation.

Some scientists—like Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists—argue the Air Force could accomplish the same objectives by using cheaper, more efficient spacecraft that either burn up on entry or parachute down.

"The ability to return to Earth carries a high price," Grego said in a statement.

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Royale
not rated yet Dec 11, 2012
What are the chances this shuttle was also designed to covertly take out foreign satellites, if need be?
Infinion
2 / 5 (4) Dec 11, 2012
I'm pretty sure there is a UN treaty that opposes space militarization
gambit
3.8 / 5 (10) Dec 11, 2012
I'm pretty sure the US military has been militarizing space since after WWII when we smuggled in Germany's top scientists, during an operation called "paperclip". We have detonated nukes in orbit during testing. We now have lasers powerful enough to knock out missiles or whatever we aim them at, both land and space based. We have had anti-satellite missiles for a very long time. Clearly the Air Force doesn't give a crap about any UN treaty. Nothing will stop us from taking the high ground, period end of story. It's just too great of an advantage not to exploit it.
Parsec
3.4 / 5 (10) Dec 11, 2012
I'm pretty sure the US military has been militarizing space since after WWII when we smuggled in Germany's top scientists, during an operation called "paperclip". We have detonated nukes in orbit during testing. We now have lasers powerful enough to knock out missiles or whatever we aim them at, both land and space based. We have had anti-satellite missiles for a very long time. Clearly the Air Force doesn't give a crap about any UN treaty. Nothing will stop us from taking the high ground, period end of story. It's just too great of an advantage not to exploit it.

Evidence? Or speculation?
Royale
5 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2012
Can it be both?

Actually I was recently reading/watching something that brought up a great point. To covertly take out a satellite all you need to do is create a machine to fly by it and spray it with black paint. The sun will do the rest AND you have plausible deniability.
El_Nose
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 11, 2012
@parsec -- stop being lazy you are better than that

Operation paperclip
http://en.wikiped...aperclip

331 US atmospheric tests
http://en.wikiped..._testing

THEL - sold to Isreal - anti missle lasers -- or Boeing YAL-1
http://missilethr...er-thel/
http://en.wikiped...ng_YAL-1

US antisatellite weapons -- started developing 1950's
http://en.wikiped...135_ASAT

Osiris1
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 11, 2012
For one thing, this craft is not a 'ballistic shell' with no independent movement capability. If pursued by the Chinese with a missile, it can move out of the way, easily. And it can take data and bring it back without transmitting anything subject to hacking. The Iranians did get a drone a while back, a highly classified drone, and we did not like it. The Chinese could do the same. What a prize this one would be. Who knows, maybe it can test some black box propulsion tech that our guv does not want anyone to know about. Of course maybe if it lands at Nellis, then we can guess more.
dougie_fresh_007
not rated yet Dec 11, 2012
i wonder how much modification it would take to add a passenger or 2? will our shuttle replacement be based off a similar design for passenger transportation minus the cargo? if it fairs well on its second flight i wonder how much time & cost it takes to be ready again
jsdarkdestruction
5 / 5 (1) Dec 12, 2012
I dont think its anything that important. if it was you'd think theyd hide it alot better than this and say it was something else. everyone is talking about it now so its not very helpful to being top secret.
Pkunk_
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 12, 2012
I'm pretty sure there is a UN treaty that opposes space militarization

The funny thing about such a treaty is that is in unenforceable. If someone actually sends up weapons , how exactly does the UN plan to make them bring the weapons down ?
TheKnowItAll
not rated yet Dec 12, 2012
Any military actions that are brought up publically are being brought up for political reasons. No other reasons. That's how they talk to nations.
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Dec 12, 2012
The funny thing about such a treaty is that is in unenforceable. If someone actually sends up weapons , how exactly does the UN plan to make them bring the weapons down ?


Fire a tungsten rod at it atop of a rocket?
Pkunk_
1 / 5 (2) Dec 15, 2012
The funny thing about such a treaty is that is in unenforceable. If someone actually sends up weapons , how exactly does the UN plan to make them bring the weapons down ?


Fire a tungsten rod at it atop of a rocket?

Heh, works as long as you don't miss .. But then you yourself are sending a "weapon" into space.
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (3) Dec 16, 2012
"All the sorts of things that spy satellites generally do," he said.

Not likely. You don't spend more money on something if what you already have can do the same job as well.

This thing is large enough that it could house a THEL type laser, a very large chemical power supply for instant energy, and solar panels and a reactor to reverse the chemical power supply (i.e. self-recharging).

We are also likely to be going to war with Iran or Syria or both pretty soon if they keep up their insane antics, so it would be a good time to pull out the stops and do some dry runs to make sure all the kinks are out of the system.

Having a THEL or COIL style laser in space will make picking off enemy missiles and ships much easier: shoot the bridge and gun wells.

Now think of how much better and precise lasers are instead of bombs for precision warfare. They can aim a beam through Assad's window and vaporize him in one day, as they should, instead of a protracted war.
javjav
not rated yet Dec 16, 2012
To covertly take out a satellite all you need to do is create a machine to fly by it and spray it with black paint. The sun will do the rest
This is a nonsense. Bringing enough "black paint" is much heavier than an impactor, which can be easily camouflaged as space junk
Ober
1 / 5 (1) Dec 16, 2012
I wonder if this thing is big enough to capture and return a North Korean Satellite??
Jayman
3 / 5 (2) Dec 17, 2012
I hope they've got something to deal with rogue nations launching nukes. Pakistan, N.Korea and Iran come to mind.