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Robot Spaceplane To Launch In 2008 75

FleaPlus writes "The US Air Force has announced that it is developing an unmanned reusable spaceplane, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. The first launch is in 2008 on an Atlas V rocket. The X-37B will be one-fourth the size of the Space Shuttle and serve as a testbed for technologies for future reusable spacecraft. Its predecessor, the X-37, was drop-tested from the Scaled Composites White Knight mothership earlier this year."
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Robot Spaceplane To Launch In 2008

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  • by Josh Lindenmuth ( 1029922 ) <joshlindenmuth AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @08:45PM (#16960358) Journal
    Given that the U.S. government and military has made it obvious that it plans to dominate space [washingtonpost.com] I would guess this project has far more ambitious intents than simple orbital research. A small unmanned shuttle would provide the perfect capabilities for detection, destruction, and possibly even retrieval of "enemy" satellites. Add some radar absorbing materials/techniques to the X-37B mini shuttle and you have the perfect space based weapon.

    A few of these shuttles in orbit at any one time could provide the ability to quickly take out other countries space capabilities without being as obvious as using a ground based laser or missile. Plus it would be far more accurate.
    • Question: I am not a rocket scientist....
      but wouldn't it be easier to just shoot a missile at whatever you don't like, rather than using space-fighter planes?

      The whole space-fighter/missile scenario would seem to apply here- a missile requires a quarter the fuel and no real capacity for reuse while being able to carry more boom per rocket.

      • It's really just a cover for the coming invasion... They want Jack O'neil and Sam Carter up there to save us all!

        /tinfoilhat
        • Jack O'Neill is a General now, I really doubt he'll be up there saving us all. Cameron Mitchell is much more likely. But if there's an Ori invasion, we can have all the fighters in the world up there and the toilet's beams will pound right through them...
      • Oi you,

                  put that razor away.
      • While that may be true, a missile doesn't really have the capacity to retrieve the target for analysis, or do "in flight" refuelling (spy and weapon satellites have thrusters for station keeping and reorientation tasks).
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Do you have any idea the wide variety of orbits used by satellites?
      Do you have any idea the fuel costs it would take such an "interceptor" shuttle to move amongst these orbits?
      A missile can do it simply, cheaply, and now. Occam's razor suggests they wouldn't build such a complicated ship for such a simple mission, and that your conspiracy theory is unfounded.

      • by Andy Gardner ( 850877 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @10:09PM (#16960934)
        A missile can do it simply, cheaply, and now. Occam's razor suggests they wouldn't build such a complicated ship for such a simple mission.

        Subsidization of the economy through the Pentagon system suggests a complicated ship for a simple mission would be acceptable.

        • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward
          If you are referring to $1000 toilet seats, I have news for you, that is not why the seats cost $1000.
    • In the development of aerospace technology, Japan has always trailed the USA until now. For many years, the Japanese have been working on an unmanned space shuttle [fas.org], nicknamed "HOPE-X". The craft [www.jaxa.jp] somewhat resembles the American space shuttle.

      NASDA, the Japanese space agency that has morphed into JAXA, successfully tested a protoype [space.com]. The program has been canceled due to lack of funding. JAXA intends to use the experimental data and the design schematics for this prototype to develop a manned space plane

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) *

        Did the United Force Air Force somehow "borrow" the Japanese experimental data and design schematics to develop the American version of an unmanned space plane?

        The Airforce has data from the X-15, the SR-71, the Space Shuttle, the Delta Clipper, and pretty much everything from the X-30 through somewhere in the X-40's. They don't need the Japanese design. What they need is funding, commitment, and trust. Three things that the executive branch of the US Government fails in spades to provide.

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      Given that the U.S. government and military has made it obvious that it plans to dominate space

      This advance is getting into orbit with a 1980's Russian rocket motor design (RD-180 in the Atlas) so I don't think NASA cares about the Jingoism and just wants to do what they can with what they can get until they get a good design. The dominate space thing comes down to noisy people in politics who won't provide the funding for their silly schemes.

      • by osu-neko ( 2604 )
        It should be noted that this is a DARPA project, and NASA really had nothing to do with this test. The big NASA logo on the side is left-over from before NASA dropped the project and it was transfered to DARPA (i.e. the military).
    • Given that the U.S. government and military has made it obvious that it plans to dominate space

      Sure - in some paranoid fantasy universe. Here in the real world our space policy is pretty much the same as our air and sea policies, "the US uses this and reserves the right to protect our usage from interference". (If you haven't read the policy, I suggest you do. The linked article is based on some fantasy - not on the actual policy.)

      A few of these shuttles in orbit at any one time could pr

    • Instead of those damned expensive Atlas V rockets, they should use the X-4000 Launch Apparatus [uncoveror.com] to hurl it skyward.
  • What about Buran? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Kell Bengal ( 711123 )
    "If successful, the plane would be the first spacecraft since the shuttle that would be capable of returning experiments back to Earth for analysis." Buran could do this - they just couldn't afford to fly the thing. Not that I'm suggesting we use Buran, btw... it's been sitting outside for a while.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 )
      Buran could do this - they just couldn't afford to fly the thing.

      They couldn't afford to finish it. One model flew, once, unmanned because the crew compartment wasn't finished yet. It, and the other 2 Buran bodies fell into disuse, neglect, and outright destruction.
    • by Latent Heat ( 558884 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @09:32PM (#16960684)
      At the risk of being one of those grammer fascists, I believe calling the then-Soviet shuttle "Buran" would be like calling the U.S. Shuttle "Columbia." Buran, meaning snow storm, was the name of Soviet Shuttle number 1, and I suppose the other craft could have been named "Galileo" if the Soviets were Trekkers.

      On the other hand, we don't know what to call it other than "Buran" because the Soviet Space Transportation System (SSTS?) was never given a proper name other than letting people call it Buran.

      By the way, does anyone know what kind of reentry vehicle -- lifting body, straight wing, delta wing -- this thing is?

      The Russian and U.S. "capsules" were blunt body reentry vehicles -- some were ballistic, others used an offset CG for a small amount of hypersonic lift to mitigate the G-load and thermal load of reentry. Apollo along with the Russian Zond used offset CG to good effect for reentry from lunar distance. All landed mainly by parachute with either crushable couch struts to mitigate a land impact (Apollo, if they had to go down on land) or braking rockets -- the Russians may have crumped a Soyuz with a landing rocket failure, resulting in broken teeth.

      The Shuttle famously uses a delta wing that produces a large amount of lift everywhere from hypersonic reentry down to the subsonic landing speed, and this famously drove up the cost and weight. Max Faget had a straight-wing Shuttle proposal that was equally famously rejected, both on the idea that straight-wing craft have nasty hypersonic handling (think Yeager and his tumble in the X1A, his tumble in the NF104, and Mike Adam's accident in the X15) along with the Air Force wanting the Shuttle to have more hypersonic cross range. But Faget's explanation of the thing is that the straight wing vehicle pancaked in -- it didn't really fly on those wings in hypersonic reentry -- and the straight wing Shuttle was like a cookie cutter applied to an Apollo heat shield, and the control of blunt body reentry with offset CG for some small amount of lift was well tested. But the Faget Shuttle would have to do some kind of Alley Oop maneuver at subsonic speed to transition from a full stall pancake attitude to proper flight on those straight wings, and there was some concern about doing that stall recovery safely.

      Then there was the DC-X, the closest thing to a Buck Rogers spaceship from the 1930's comic books, which was to reenter as a blunt body (don't remember if it was nose first or tail first) but land on its tail using rocket thrust. Of course the DC-X on landing is this big mainly empty fuel tank so it is not going that fast before the rockets cut in for landing, but if the rockets fail, you are going to crump that thing.

      Perhaps the only new thing under the sun for reentry (although not an orbital reentry) was the Rutans' "shuttle cock" folding tail where they reentered with a stable, high drag configuration and then straightened the tail for atmospheric flight and landing.

      NASA wants to go back to the Apollo style reentry and landing but probably on land using parachutes and landing rockets like Soyuz and the Chinese spacecraft. You save big time on weight and there are safety advantages in terms of heat tile damage, but this low-control landing has problems of its own. Do you suppose NASA could wait awhile on the outcome of this Air Force project to see how it turns out?

      • by Andy Gardner ( 850877 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @09:55PM (#16960836)
        At the risk of being one of those grammer fascists--

        Oh dear...

      • by maddogsparky ( 202296 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @10:10PM (#16960946)
        X37 was a lifting body.

        Two other methods for reentry.

        Man Out Of Space (MOOS) (50's or 60's?) was a proposal for an emergency escape system from a spacecraft that invoved the use of a heat shield in a can. A foam filled bag that froze into a giant blob was deployed from the back of an astronaut that acted as a balute and heat shield. The astronaut actually used a hand held rocket gun to de-orbit. I've heard of ballutes with relation to other projects, but can't think of the source at the moment.

        The Roton launch vehicle (1990's) looked something like DC-X (tail-first SSTO and landing) intended to use rotors to slow it down as it descended tail first from orbit, much like a helecopter during an unpowered landing. A prototype was flown that demonstrated a landing using rocket-powered rotors. Tom Clancy was involved in funding it, but he had to back out when his finances got scrambled by a divorce, eventually leading to the company's demise.

      • But the Faget Shuttle would have to do some kind of Alley Oop maneuver at subsonic speed to transition from a full stall pancake attitude to proper flight on those straight wings, and there was some concern about doing that stall recovery safely.

        I don't see why, when you have all the speed and altitude in the world. Maybe it was a stability thing in the stalled mode. Smaller vortexes around the short-cord wings will give you more buffet and increase RCS fuel consumption.

        Perhaps the only new thing under th

      • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Delta Clipper (which the DC-X was a prototype of) was supposed to enter nose first, and turn in midair for a base-first landing.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

        But the Faget Shuttle would have to do some kind of Alley Oop maneuver at subsonic speed to transition from a full stall pancake attitude to proper flight on those straight wings, and there was some concern about doing that stall recovery safely.

        It wasn't just flight characteristics that caused the rejection of the Faget type Shuttle, tere were also serious concerns about reentry areodynamics. The sharp junction of wing and body in particular lead to shock waves impinging on the vehicle body, which means

  • The Russians have been sending unmanned supply ships for years. The upgrade here is that the craft is reusable.
  • Welcome! (Score:1, Redundant)

    by SeaFox ( 739806 )
    Well I, for one, welcome our new high-flying drone overlords!
  • by kevintron ( 1024817 ) on Wednesday November 22, 2006 @10:05PM (#16960898)
    From everything I've read about the Space Shuttle design process, a major goal in making it reusable was to reduce the cost of getting into space. However, several competing interests within the government saddled NASA with conflicting demands. Attempting to satisfy everyone with one big multi-use tool made the whole system much more expensive to operate and maintain. It also strained the definition of "reusable" by needing major components that weren't reusable at all, and requiring the Shuttle itself to be almost entirely rebuilt between launches.

    Now we're seeing more specialized designs. Heavy cargo launchers can be much cheaper when they don't have to carry people. Crew launch vehicles can be made safer at less cost if they aren't also being asked to carry heavy cargo loads.

    The X-37B, if it leads to spacecraft that are truly reusable, could be another step toward making everything we do in space less costly and more productive. In the long run, that goal is far more important than any other mission in space, whether the short term goals are military or civilian ones.
    • "Crew launch vehicles can be made safer at less cost if they aren't also being asked to carry heavy cargo loads"
      The Ares 1 rocket, which will launch the crew capsule of future moon missions is, by most standards, a heavy launch vehicle. It has a low-earth-orbit payload comparable to the delta IV - Heavy, titan 4, and Atlas 5 Heavy. It is also not a cheap rocket. The Atlas 5 on which this test vehicle will be launched, costs a couple hundred million dollars to launch.

      While there are efforts to make space che
  • I don't want to start you with reverse Soviet Union [wikipedia.org] jokes, but come on, unmanned reusable spacecraft should have been a reality for at least a couple of decades.
  • Area 51 (Score:3, Interesting)

    by petrus4 ( 213815 ) on Thursday November 23, 2006 @12:53AM (#16961840) Homepage Journal
    It's worth noting that a high speed suborbital spaceplane was actually mentioned in the History Channel's program on Area 51, some years ago. The man who mentioned it in the program, Mark Farmer, speculated that its' use would primarily be as a fast international troop dropship, although this article does not seem to indicate that.

    The HC program also mentioned how it had been later discovered that aircraft such as the AR-71 Blackbird were being developed at Groom some time before official public announcements were made, and that aircraft whose existence was continually officially denied would suddenly be released to a museum after they had been decommissioned. This article possibly lends more evidence in support of that being the case.

    Even from a purely empiricist, non UFO perspective, it is tantalising to wonder about what other things they're possibly cooking up under the ground out there, as well...especially considering both the amazing technological advancement and aesthetic beauty of the aircraft we have already seen produced by the facility. This article and the historical cases (such as the Blackbird and stealth programs) also possibly lend hope to the idea that given enough time after the development of the individual inventions/aircraft, we will eventually be able to find out.
  • The US Air Force has announced that it is developing an unmanned reusable spaceplane [CC], the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

    I wonder if the production model is going to have human cargo? It seems not. Humans require a lot of support systems to make the trip. All those support systems take up weight and volume, reducing the cargo carrying capacity of the vehicle.

    With the advances in flight automation one wonders how long it will before ground based systems are controlling aircraft instead of a crew in

    • I'm guessing it won't be long before the human up front spends most of their time reading magazines.

      Essentially it is that way now. Autopilot systems exist for take off, flight and landing. Taxi is about the only thing not automated so far and it would not be difficult for that either and has been proposed.

      pilots are still needed to handle emergency situations. difficult landing conditions are often passed to the autopilot though because of its faster response time. really, really difficult landing cond

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