A US Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle has been in space for two years conducting top secret research.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Based on NASA’s X-37 design, the unmanned OTV is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space technology experimentation and testing. Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway. The X-37B is the first vehicle since NASA’s Shuttle Orbiter with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis, but with an on-orbit time of 270 days, the X-37B can stay in space for much longer.
Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.
X-37B Returns to Earth
Bloomberg reports Supersecret Spacecraft Comes Back to Earth After Two Years
The U.S. Air Force has kept an unmanned space shuttle in orbit for the past two years, and it seems no one without security clearance knows what it’s been doing up there.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which can enter orbit and land without human intervention, is scheduled to touch down this week—the best guess is sometime on Tuesday—at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif. The landing will mark completion of the program’s third and longest mission, which was launched on Dec. 11, 2012. The Air Force has two such spacecraft for these low-earth orbit missions, all of which are classified, as are the precise launch and landing times.
“The mission is basically top secret,” says Captain Chris Hoyler, an Air Force spokesman.
The spacecraft measures 29 feet long and 9.5 feet high, about one-fifth the size of the retired NASA space shuttles that seem to have inspired its appearance. It has a payload bay that opens in space, just like the larger space shuttles.
The X-37B “is clearly a military program that no one has necessarily felt the need to justify politically,” says Laura Grego, a senior scientist in the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says the spacecraft’s likely missions could probably be handled by satellites and other platforms at lower cost to taxpayers.
Marco Caceres, a space analyst with Teal Group, says the Air Force is most likely interested in having a surveillance platform that can “maneuver in orbit faster” than satellites. Darpa is also working on a new hypersonic “spaceplane” called the XS-1 that could offer quick access to space and launch payloads into orbit for less than $5 million per flight. “Quick, affordable, and routine access to space is increasingly critical for U.S. Defense Department operations,” the agency said in its call for proposals for the spacecraft late last year.
As with many top-secret Pentagon programs, speculation has flourished online about what the government is doing with the spacecraft. Theories range from surveillance to, well, more surveillance involving satellites that are so secretive they can only be released in space. Others have suggested the craft is the platform for a new generation of kinetic weapons that can be used from space.
Rods From God
Bloomberg linked to a Popular Science article Rods from God depicting “Space-launched darts that strike like meteors”.
Clearly we need more ways to kill each other from space because we are too inefficient here. Besides, government spending adds directly to GDP. So after we complete the mission on earth, we can bomb the heck out of Mars.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock