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Second X-37B Space Plane is Now on Orbit

by John Reed on March 6, 2011

Well, it’s official, the Air Force’s second X-37B mystery space plane took to the heavens yesterday afternoon to do who-knows what for the next few months.

The second Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle lifted off aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 5:46 p.m., yesterday, according to a Boeing announcement.

Still, there are no details as to what type of tests the experimental spacecraft will be doing while on low Earth orbit. Here’s a nice vague statement about the  Boeing statement:

“Today, we took another important step with the successful launch of the second OTV, enabling the [Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office] to further experiment with the vehicle and its ability to operate in low-Earth orbit,” Cooning continued. “Close teamwork between the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the United Launch Alliance Atlas team, and the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station made this launch a success.”

However, there is one little hint at what the air service is doping with the craft. The announcement goes on to say that the two X-37Bs are being used to develop concepts of operations, or CONOPS, for this type of reusable space planes. This says that the Air Force might be trying, or simulating, just about every type of mission it can think the little robo-shuttles could be used for and developing blueprints for how to execute those missions in the future. What are those missions? Well, until the Air Force lets us know, we can only speculate.

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{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

nraddin March 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm

I am more interested in the cost and turn around time to orbit for the vehicle. What it's doing on those missions is really limited only to imagination and payload. The million dollar question in my mind is, how cheap/fast can we do it?

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TLAM Strike March 6, 2011 at 11:29 am

I don’t know about the cost but the Space Shuttle was originally intended to have a turn around time of two weeks. In real life it takes about 8 weeks for the Shuttle. Plus there is a question of how many launch vehicles are available, those have to be built or be in stock for each launch as they are not recoverable.

As with anything if we do it along and in great numbers it will get cheaper.

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reader March 6, 2011 at 11:34 am

No shuttle has been turned around in eight weeks in the history of the program. Shuttle cannot even be called properly reusable, its more refurbishable than anything.
And then they decided to fish out solid boosters for god knows what reason and refurbish these too, even though it would be cheaper to just ditch them and build new ones.

The STS has been a huge #fail in regards of its own program goals, and its fixed costs are enormous.

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Joe Schmoe March 6, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Cheaper to build new?

Get off the crack.

Do you have any idea how complicated the internals of each booster is. Look, here is just one small part:
http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2010/02/shuttle-bo

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blight March 6, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Correction to previous post:

Boosters aren't free-fall but it seems a great deal of trouble to refurb an entire booster assembly if you really don't need to. In principle, only a few parts are really worth the cost of saving; however the entire booster assembly is built for multiple reuses. In the end, it's an accounting meets engineer meets NASA budget issue: is it cost effective to re-engineer particular whole assemblies to be reuseable? And if so, will such tasks be cost-effective when NASA budgets get cut ten percent down the line in the distant future?

Quick reading on the SRBs shows that some of the assemblies are quite old, and still soldier on…

blight March 6, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Makes you wonder just how ruggedly a booster has to be built if you want it to propel a shuttle at high velocity, freefall from high altitude into the ocean and then float for retrieval. Hard to say if having a reuseable booster is cheaper or not…I mean it's not like we save the gigantic fuel tank either.

EJ257 March 6, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Wait why would they implement this now, for the final two shuttle flights? Doesn't seem cost effective to develop something like this for just the last two flights.

Observation September 8, 2011 at 9:33 am

Just because its complicated doesn't make it economical to recycle. And every one of those parts went through extensive re-certification. And yes some of the tests done were not required on newly manufactured parts that had not be hot dropped in the ocean. some times its cheaper to test the manufacturing process than the part itself when dealing with new stuff.

So truly I would not be surprised if recycling cost more than new. However, once you buy into a mandatory green program I suspect that recycling was cheaper than clean up plus new.

jamesb101 March 6, 2011 at 12:31 pm

but it IS a space ship…NOT a flying telephone booth capsule….

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Evan March 6, 2011 at 1:33 pm

They keep the TARDIS prototype in Area 51.

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jamesb101 March 6, 2011 at 2:07 pm

He, he, he……

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STemplar March 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I still say its for a prompt redundancy in space ops. When the Chinese shot down their weather satellite all the talk was how vulnerable the US is if we are denied space access. I bet this is to address that primarily.

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blight March 6, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Not sure how the space plane is meant to address vulnerability of satellites in predictable orbits.

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Adam March 7, 2011 at 7:32 pm

uh.. just off the top of my head:

so they can quickly and easily replace them / place new ones into different orbits if the assets are destroyed?

even to deploy a constellation of replacements that are of a different form factor (think mini/pico sats to replace big hulking ones the that can easily be hit with a missile) in a space denial scenario?

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blight March 8, 2011 at 8:47 am

Replacing things doesn't address vulnerability. It's a band-aid.

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well-duh September 8, 2011 at 10:03 am

Besides a space plane is definitely NOT the cheapest way to launch new satellites. You inherit the weight and volume of the shuttle as a minimum extra cost to your launch — yeah launching a 10 pound micro-satellite or even a dozen on USAF robo-shuttle now a 3 ton plus launch option. AND that is not counting that actual satellite launch is highly restricted to automated deployment rig since no astronaut is there to guide the release in a more flexible manner. AND GASP launching satellites from old shuttles was always subsidized for the experimental value of manned space operations — real total cost was never actually anywhere near the cost of conventional launches by a factor of 10 or more.

Yes DOD might pay more to robo launch a few satellites in blacker than black mode — i.e. no specs leak out due to launch vehicle design. But even there launches are probably cost restricted to urgent need or super black.

But I suspect robo-shuttle missions are probably more repair, destroy or intercept oriented on the satellite side. I would not be surprised if robo-shuttles occasionally carried a technician or assault team as cargo to do so.

Repair is more appropriate and probably often months or years faster than replacement for some of the really huge DOD satellites weighing 5-35 tons and costing multiple billions.

Reloading might simply be as innocent as refueling orbit altering thrusters on spy satellites or reloading self-defense measures or… use your imagination once other nations start shooting at satellite assets.

Intercepting…well wouldn't it be useful to "bug" foreign military and spy satellites or (gasp) even their domestic satellites if you are trying to track the next Bin laden and are getting less than full cooperation. Or perhaps preset limpet mines in case hostilities break out. Or perhaps surgical and deniable (seems to be meteorite strike) permanent or temporary (jamming device) disablement of certain capabilities.

Disclaimer: any match to actual classified plans is strictly via a creative mind not via access to such material.

praetorian March 7, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I heard NASA or the Airforce is breaking out an old X-plane. The X-34 Reusable unmanned spaceplane testbed. Any correlation ??

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STemplar March 6, 2011 at 4:40 pm

By carrying extra ones to replace those lost or payloads that can act is the same fashion on command.

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well-duh September 8, 2011 at 10:12 am

Your idea apparently has robo shuttle staying long term in orbit to eject replacements as needed…well what is bigger, more expensive, and easier target to destroy? Certainly not the 8-18 inch micro satellite.

But you are in fact close to one idea that has already been used with past DOD satellite programs like GPS. The original launch vehicle deploys extra micro satellites and the spares remain in low power mode until needed…

or rotated operational and backup duty if low power mode is neither stealth nor extends ultimate in orbit lifetime. Rotation does sometimes extend operational life or change the pattern of defects (almost all satellites have bugs and malfunctioning sections after a short time in space – so sometimes you pick and choose which less functions to do without).

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well-duh September 8, 2011 at 10:18 am

But again my point is that the robo-shuttle is almost NEVER the most economical launch vehicle in a well planned deployment.

The choice of robo-shuttle to launch much lighter payload of satellites is normally the hallmark of a rare unplanned emergency deployment of new satellite type – something where its faster to build a special rig to deploy the satellite from the robo-shutle bay than to hurry up the deployment of an existing planned launch vehicle plan specifically designed for the existing satellite.

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crazy March 6, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Kind of looks like what a next generation ISR platform might look like if you wanted it to fly in low earth orbit. If Global Hawk is the logical follow-on to the U-2 then this would be a logical follow-on to the SR-71, wouldn’t it?

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blight March 6, 2011 at 10:12 pm

You may have a point. Contrail be damned, this craft could be fast, and would probably trigger hysterical panic because the only missile systems that could nail these would be ABM systems, which by and large would also set off an EMP over your own homeland. Not an option in most cases…

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well-duh September 8, 2011 at 10:21 am

Now than might well be a real robo -shuttle idea. Custom reconaissance packages with mission designed suite of sensors and transmitters rather than fixed satellite design. Dare we say eventually custom Predator type self-defense and offensive packages?

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christof March 6, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Perhaps it can rendezvous with enemy satellites and install some hardware that allows the US to alter their images.

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blight March 6, 2011 at 10:14 pm

That assumes the only satellites worth targeting in orbit are image acquisition satellites. China is putting together it's own global positioning constellation, and likely has communications satellites in addition to classical image acquisition satellites.

This isn't like the movies where you make the other guys surveillance camera go on five minute loop and expect to get away with it. Additionally, if your space plane has high albedo and can be tracked by ground observers (or a sensor system in space) then you can't mess with satellites without triggering an alarm.

However, many nations don't seem to bother trying to track space debris and objects in space, except NORAD?

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Oblat March 7, 2011 at 2:34 am

>What are those missions? Well, until the Air Force lets us know, we can only speculate.

Perhaps they are for delivering ice-cream ?

I get it a story about a dog-eared prototype replacement for the shuttle disaster is pretty boring. But trying to jazz it up is just silly.

NASA has imploded the shuttle scrapped largely because pentagon interference in it's design screwed it from the start and now the DoD is cobbling together a cut down mini-shuttle built out of an old NASA program.

So what no capabilities do you get for a cut down shuttle prototype ? That still cant go to high orbit and looks like about as reusable based on the slow turn around time and still carries the failed tile heat -sheld concept ? – a lot less.

On the plus side making it a secret program means the budget can blow out again the milestones can ll be missed and you don't have to tell anyone.

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Ben March 7, 2011 at 10:48 am

The new PICA ablative tiles are a descendant of the apollo style reentry system, not the space shuttles Aerogel thermal soak tiles.
Up until recently the ablative style heat shields had to applied all in once piece, instead of a more flexible modular format.

The STS thermal soak tiles were theoretically infinite use, but in reality had to be replaced after every flight which is why they went over budget so much.
The ablative tiles burn away a little each flight, with a limited lifespan, but they are durable enough to not need replacing until they are spent.

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Snake Plissken March 7, 2011 at 5:34 am

The X-37B is very valuable because it can expend its delta-v budget on ad-hoc tactical orbital changes and then return the surveillance payload back to Earth for reuse on the next mission.

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Adam March 7, 2011 at 7:39 pm

that makes perfect sense.. A maneuverable ISR platform where you don't lose the platform when you run out of hydrazine..

I'm sure someone said: "Hey, instead of spending all of our on-orbit propellant maneuvering our intelsats to the right place, and then losing a multi-hundred-million (or more, who knows with black ISR budgets) dollar asset when the propellant runs out, let's just make the payload returnable, refuel, and get back to orbit!"

The strategic payoff is pretty clear, from an asset management point of view.

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Ben March 7, 2011 at 9:30 am

I mentioned this in the earlier x-37b post, but the choice of vehicle configuration gives a strong hint at some of the mission specs.

The only reason to use a space plane is for payload retrieval, they want whatever it is back down in one piece, and it is too fragile to survive a desert landing in a conventional capsule.

If all they needed was orbital maneuverability, then a capsule can do the job just as well, and with lower vehicle weight.

Also the next generation heat shields are massively more durable than the STS program's puffed glass thermal soak tiles, which lowers turn around time and cost.
This in turn gives a reason for why they chose a runway landing system versus a water landing, which requires an expensive retrieval ship.

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Bob March 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm

"The only reason to use a space plane is for payload retrieval, they want whatever it is back down in one piece, and it is too fragile to survive a desert landing in a conventional capsule. "

perhaps a chemical laser weapons system with highly aligned precision optics? It would need to be brought back for refueling and you wouldnt want to bounce the thing off the ocean….. just a thought.

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blight March 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Luckily the OST allows for conventional weapons. If you wanted to destroy enemy satellites, it would be cheaper to emplace a constellation of satellites in orbit and use them to zap enemy satellites. If the satellites can change trajectory, and in the absence of tracking systems counter-attack would mean nailing every satellite in orbit that you could not properly account for.

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Will March 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I've still haven't seen a convincing argument that this isn't a prototype for a manned spacecraft. If it was a matter of refueling a laser, it would be easier to send up a remote controlled tanker than to fly the laser back down. If it was a matter of returning science experiments, this would a NASA project instead of an USAF 1. To clarify a previous post, what I mean by a prototype repairman's van is that a production version will be bigger, but still much smaller than the shuttle.

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praetorian March 7, 2011 at 4:16 pm

The X-40 seemed bigger then the X-37B and that was a test bed for the X-37B. Anyone have some specs?

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Adam March 7, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Maybe this _is_ the tanker?

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well-duh September 8, 2011 at 10:44 am

I think we will find that the robo-shuttle merely lacks a flight crew and that it might well carry a small mission crew with no flight tasks for short durations. That is important to save weight and unnecessary traingin that can stay on ground.

I doubt refueling is easily done by any robot system we have for next future — without a relatively massive docking block to handle identification of port and absorb energy of any minor docking miscalculations. Keep the international space space docking mechanism as a starting guideline for what each satellite might need. Reducing it more than a magnitude in size is probably beyond current reliable technology. and the reduced docking collar is stil really big compared to lots of satellites.

On the other hand a single human tech can space walk to a tiny nipple not adding much weight to design. Space walking reduces the chance of collision and removes rigid constraints on where and how refueling attachments are to be made. Heck you can even have a cover panel that has to be remove or a code that has to be entered.

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well-duh September 8, 2011 at 11:00 am

No I think the repairman version is just this size. The whole point of the USAF approach is to eliminate the weight and waste of a flight crew. The UAV experience says its just as good to fly from the ground. The repairman is likely a single person or maybe two – whose total space training is limited to spacewalking and nothing to do with flying the ship. Other than that they are actual experts on the satellite or system being handled — not some NASA flight crew space monkey being primarily directed by a real expert on the ground looking over his shoulder via camera. And they will carry only the parts for that specific satellite and probably only for expected or likely repairs — not an entire disassembled satellite.

Because the mission crew will be single system experts – mission duration will be very limited — hours to maybe 1-2 days max. The second shuttle quite possibly being backup contingency of returning satellite or most valuable parts, if it can't be fixed in space.

There will be no generic repairman van orbit earth for days piloted from satellite to satellite repairing all that are broken as reported. The shuttles will not need much space because they will carry only the specific parts expected for one satellite and only 1-2 repairmen.

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blight March 7, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Eventually solid-state lasers will supersede chemical ones. It all depends on whether or not solid-state lasers are ready the day the United States is ready to put laser weapons into orbit.

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well-duh September 8, 2011 at 10:34 am

In near future chemical fuel is always going to be cheaper than power plant capable of repeated impulse of equal magnitude – both in total power system weight for single event use and in terms of maintenance (particularly unnmanned) for a high intensity series of uses.

True nuclear etc beats chemical hands down for millions or even tens of thousands of event (shots) but that is not the job. And the actual fuel expended by nuclear per event etc is smaller but you got the entire fuel slug as waste when done plus all that supporting reactor plant — versus the chemical fueled events in which the entire power need for each event comes from a single easily replaceable "cartridge" (injectable liquid or actual solid energy source).

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dauntlessCelt March 7, 2011 at 10:36 am

Ram the chinese satellites!!!

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kim March 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm

More space debris!!!

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Matt Holzmann March 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm

It's meant to carry space ninjas of course. These ninjas will take apart Chinese ASAT satellites or redirect them at the mainland and/or Rooshian illegal space launch vehicles.

This was all foreseen by Flash Gordon. After all, his nemesis was Ming the Merciless, whose only true desire is to kidnap Dale Arden and have his wicked way with her.

Ninjas and microrobotic space weapons. I'm just sayin…..

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Thomas L. Nielsen March 9, 2011 at 9:08 am

Where are the space monkeys? You didn't forget the terrifying space monkeys, did you?

Reghards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen
Luxembourg

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eric March 7, 2011 at 2:39 pm

i personally think its for spying, low orbit plus its air force means it has option of being for spying……just my input

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Marshall March 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm

I am sure that one of its missions is to scare the heck out of the Chinese and Russians who have been flexing their muscles since America has had its financial downturn…..

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Rob March 8, 2011 at 11:27 pm

It was a global downturn, never forget.

Russia and China 'flexing their muscles' is purely a response to America invading, and attempt at taking over 2 countries near them, while keeping homeland in a 'business as usual' state.

If anything, because of our current situation Russia AND China no longer fear us now.

As for the secret flights. A no-brainer to me. To spy and test feasibility of satellite defense from low orbit lasers.

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Dean March 7, 2011 at 9:39 pm

They always deny any connection but I note the fact this thing just happens go up at the same time the shuttle is on orbit. Same thing with the first one too.

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praetorian March 8, 2011 at 7:46 am

Interesting

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Chris Henry March 8, 2011 at 10:06 am

I think they're using it to rendition Liberals

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mig1nc March 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm

I think Jack Bauer is onboard in the payload bay, which is just big enough for one man.

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John August 24, 2011 at 8:20 pm

They're going to strap a death ray on it, duh…

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blight March 6, 2011 at 5:07 pm

It doesn't, but it involves a part which upon failure would kill astronauts. Maybe politicians didn't care about these kinds of fixes until the very end; in which case it would behoove congressmen in Texas and Florida to ensure that the program ends without a hitch. I mean, if astronauts die on the last flight of the shuttle, it would probably be the diminishment of NASA and loss of jobs and prestige in their district.

Political points, the only thing that gets people at the east end of The Mall to do something they should've done a loong time ago…

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