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India and Russia Building Robo-Space Planes

by John Reed on September 1, 2011

So NASA’s Space Shuttle has officially retired, leaving only the Air Force’s two X-37Bs as the only reusable space planes in operation. Much speculation is occurring about what this means for the future of space travel. One thought; the two mystery shuttles may be ushering in a new age in space transport around the globe — the era of the unmanned space shuttle.

Earlier this year, Russia revealed that it is working on a similar, unmanned space plane and India’s space agency has, for some time, been known to be working on its own version (shown above) of the X-37B.

Apparently, the Indians have already built a tech demonstrator for their space plane that will be used, like the X-37B, as a reusable truck to carry payloads in and out of space. The initial version of the craft will apparently splash down into the ocean in a similar fashion as NASA’s old Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules. However, once India masters “several elements” the spacecraft will lift-off with the help of rockets but land on a runway like an airplane .

Keep in mind that it was the Soviet Union, not the U.S. who first built and successfully flew an automated, unmanned, reusable space plane in 1988 when the Buran space shuttle flew to space, orbited the Earth and then landed at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Now, these small unmanned space planes craft may be able to bring the original dream of NASA’s Space Shuttle to life. They’re  relatively inexpensive and lack the danger associated with human cargo. This means the craft could be mass produced and used to quickly shuttle all sorts of goods into space. As the X-37B has already proven, such craft can stay in space for months performing a host of (for now, secret) missions. The first X-37B flight lasted 220 days and amateur spotters noticed the craft switched orbital patterns numerous times during this extremely long spaceflight.

Just like UAVs are permanently changing air warfare, these robo-shuttles may be about to permanently change space operations.

One hint as to the role of U.S. Air Force’s X-37Bs could have come recently from Gary Payton, the U.S. Air Force’s undesecretary for space who told Flight Global that the service wants to be able to turn the little craft around in 10-to-15 days and operate them much more like the old SR-71 Blackbird spyplanes

If we were in a surge environment, where we were putting up a whole bunch of satellites over a month or two, I would like to see the X-37B handle much more like a [Lockheed] SR-71.

The first part of that quote is pretty straightforward. The  Air Force no doubt sees the robo shuttles as the embodiment of the space Shuttle’s original promise; cheap, reusable spacecraft that make access to orbit a commodity.

The last part of his quote makes me wonder if the X-37B is the replacement for the SR-71 in terms of being an untouchable spy plane. It can stay aloft for a long time beyond the reach of any known weapons; it could plant a host of spy satellites on orbit; spy on other satellites; or use its ability to maneuver around the heavens to do its own spying if its equipped with the right cameras and radar equipment.

Then again, this is all speculation and I could be reading far too much into Payton’s quote. It may just be a simple satellite truck meant to drop off and recovers classified spy sats and nothing more.

Here’s a little more on India’s space plane program — the document from India’s space agency discusses Indian  officials’ longstanding plans to eventually produce a craft that can take-off and land like  a standard airplane.  Before they can do this, they must build a rocket-launched craft similar to the one described above.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

JZzika September 1, 2011 at 12:22 pm

The Chinese will have one operational before the Indians or the Russians. The Russians have proven time and time again that they have difficulty with complex systems such as a Space Shuttle. So, for them to develop a system similar to the X-37 is still asking a bit much from them.

The Chinese on the other hand have demonstrated sufficent technical prowess with their space systems that I believe they will be bale to field such a system relatively soon.

The question becomes what are the CONOPS these re-usable space planes will be employed under? Some very interesting possibilities open up such as rapid deployment of micro satellites for EO/IR coverage of developing hot spots, the ability to image/investigate foreign satellites, etc……..

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Indian September 1, 2011 at 6:47 pm

china sent two moon satellites (chang'e 1 and 2) but never posted any pic to let the world know about it's successes. Let us compare that to all those other countries who sent their spacecrafts to moon and posted the huge photo/video libraries on the net.

It is obvious those two missions were failures

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Tyler September 1, 2011 at 12:24 pm

The surge he is referring to, in my opinion, would be in time of war when sat-killer weapons could knock out GPS, ComSat, and Spy Sats and replacements would need to be launched quickly into orbit. The X-37B could both deposit small short terms Sats and it could also act as a Satellite itself. The it would be able to maneuver away from more sat-killer weps and be much harder to hit. The PRC might be able to blind our sats with a laser, but I think they are a ways from being able to shoot them down with them. Of course that doesn't bring up at all the fact that it could easily be equipped with kinetic weapons to sneak up on enemy sats and kill them. All this could be done and just about tested without ever violating any treaties on weapons in space, they would be separate systems capable of rearming here on the ground.

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Lance September 1, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Soon India and Russia will fly Americans to space since we have no more shuttles.

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crackedlenses September 1, 2011 at 8:50 pm

I suppose it's only fair since we're bankrupt and no one will do anything about it…..

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blight September 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Another possibility is using high altitude space-planes as a mobile GPS micro-constellation. Or to bounce communications off of them.

We will need to reconsider our use of long range satellite links, and opt for preparations for intermediate range tropospheric scatter systems (which can also be blown away with nukes, unless we make provisions to mount them in ships or the like).

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Musson September 1, 2011 at 4:27 pm

When SpaceX begins reusing their launch engines – it makes space planes redundant – except as gliding capsules.

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LcplWilson September 1, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Aside from satellites, what "goods" would these unmanned space craft carry. And to what purpose? Without humans in space, what else is there to do but launch satellites of one sort or another.

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TLAM Strike September 1, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Stick a .50 cal or 20mm in the nose or put a few missiles in the payload bay and you have a maneuverable, recoverable, ASAT system. Its a UCSV: Unmanned Combat Space Vehicle.

Come to think of it since it has wings it could dip in to the lower atmosphere to chance its orbit and push it self back up with its rockets to intercept a target. Since an object in a lower orbit goes faster it would be a real pain to try to outmaneuver something that could do that.

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Joe Schmoe September 1, 2011 at 9:02 pm

You can't put a gun on a space craft for the simple reason that the recoil will slow you down and you will burn up in the atmosphere.

A simpler solution for an ASAT space plane is one that just simple drops a rock.

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David September 2, 2011 at 7:48 am

I don't think that recoil from 0.5 cal is enough to overcome maneuvering thrusters and slow the spaceship down.

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Joe Schmoe September 2, 2011 at 8:40 am

It does, unless you want to use up all your fuel on one target, and then you might as well have used a missile.

Lasers, missiles and inertial objects are the only weapons you can realistically put on a space plane. Remember, a small object the size of a dime packs a lot of punch traveling at 25,000 miles per hour. With a laser you don't even need to damage the enemy satellite, just slow it down enough to cause it to re-enter the atmosphere.

Anyways, realistically, if it came to war between superpowers, then all it takes is for one to explode a nuclear weapon in space over an enemy continent to knock out nearly all electronic devices and interfere with communications.

TLAM Strike September 2, 2011 at 9:35 am

Don't tell the Russians that: They put a 23mm cannon on their Almaz space station an successfully fired it destroying a target satellite.

On the plus side you WANT to slow down after firing so you don't fly though the debris of the satellite you just destroyed.

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Joe Schmoe September 2, 2011 at 10:12 am

On the flip side, the station was unmanned at the time and needed to turn in its entirety to face the target. The station was also de-orbited shortly after. In addition, the Russians abandoned the canon in favor of missiles for their follow up military space station. The canon also caused excess vibrations.

Like I said, you can put a canon on a space craft, it's just not practical though if you want the craft to stay up.

Stephen N Russell September 1, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Or use for Orbital Rescue from ISS?? or Soyuz?
See 1969 movie Marooned.

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Ben September 1, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Boom. Space Bomber.

Seriously. Screw the HTV-2 project. All you need are a few X-35's zipping around in orbit with a payload of guided weapons ready to drop. You'd be able to hit anything on the planet in the same amount of time as the HTV-2, maybe even quicker.

As for Russia's shot at it, the only thing about their rockets that keeps me up at night is the fact that Americans will be riding them.

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bubba birner September 3, 2011 at 7:07 pm

i dont get why anyone cars about space an more besides a new way to shoot at and defend our nation. But there is nothing of use in space

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ivan flores September 4, 2011 at 6:45 pm

dont be an idiot there is countless lucrative resources in space just waiting for us to find it. not to mention which ever country manages to do that is going to get pretty wealthy fast. i hope obama and polititians get wis soon or other wise we wont be world power for long. and that my fellow americans is a scary though

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bubba birner September 7, 2011 at 6:19 pm

what resources are you talking about there is no oil or gold that they have found. hey cant even land on mars so how are they going to get the resources here.

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David September 8, 2011 at 5:12 am

Actually, there are lots of rare minerals in various places. Over 20% of the moon is titanium, magnesium and aluminium.

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bubba birner September 7, 2011 at 6:17 pm

What a waste of money. There is noway that thsi could be used in space. You get into orbit and you cant maneuver or your thrown out of orbit and drift off into space. What a waste of money

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mugabe September 16, 2011 at 10:40 am

first ,feet on the ground, then think of other things. man has developed a machine to kill,now found anothermachine to kill the former one,is it not stupidity? when intellegence is hampered this is what happens but pretents to be wise nas civilised!

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kingkong September 16, 2011 at 10:53 am

we are supposed to be intellegent and civilised but fought more than 15000 wars!
we are but barbarions and uncilised. it is a tragedy that people in thier conflict support this theory of defence and security, Can a machine give security or defense? it is childish
even to beleive so. long ago religion and worship places were the security for men but now they have realised the uselessness of it.,but turnrd to machines and techology.
now it will take a bit of time before they realise the uselessness of that too i suppose.

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Indian September 1, 2011 at 7:21 pm

If china was to make that mistake (surprise attack on USA), then china folks most likely will become an 'extinct' race. china' tech prowess can be judged by it's walmart/bestbuy's electronic crap. china's weapon targetting system is just as good as it's half of the dead satellites and 'lost in space for ever chang'e 1 & 2'

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justsaying September 2, 2011 at 10:08 am

Conservatives are clearly driven by fear. A primitive sort. No wonder they always fall for military industrial complex propaganda.

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David September 5, 2011 at 12:25 pm

It is practical as long as You don't fire it forwards. It may be more like "putting bullet on collision orbit" rather than shooting at something directly. However I'm not sure if bullet velocities are stable enough to do such maneuver.
But I agree than missiles seem more practical, unless there are so many targets to destroy that cannon with ammo supply becomes much lighter solution.

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