India and Russia Building Robo-Space Planes

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.

13 Comments on "India and Russia Building Robo-Space Planes"

  1. 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……..

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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).

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

  6. 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.

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  10. 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

  11. 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

  12. 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!

  13. 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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