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No Fleet Future For X-37B

Beyond the test phase, is there any future for the X-37B in an operational context? Could we expect a fleet of these small spaceplanes to be built and launched by the USAF?
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Apr 15, 2011
The second flight of the US Air Force's X-37B spaceplane has been underway for weeks. During this time, the USAF has been fairly quiet about its operations, but this hasn't stopped amateur satellite watchers from finding it. So far, there seem to be no big surprises. The vehicle is apparently intact and not doing anything too strange in its orbit.

We know the first mission was successful, and we can reasonably expect that the second spaceplane is working just as well. With one successful test flight, and a second test flight probably going as planned, speculation is turning to the future of the X-37B program.

It's been openly suggested that the first X-37B spaceplane, which stayed in orbit for most of 2010, will be launched again at some point in the future. This almost certainly won't happen until the mission of the second vehicle ends, which suggests that the next launch in the program won't take place for at least a year. Nobody knows how long this second flight will last, but it seems reasonable to expect that it will go for longer than the first.

Engineers may well choose to leave it in orbit for as long as a full calendar year. Then there will be a long period of analysis of the returned spacecraft, followed by some potential tweaking of the first vehicle.

When it finally returns to space, the first X-37B will be a combination of old and new parts, and it will possibly carry a new experiment payload in its cargo bay.

Beyond the third launch, what will happen? Let's remember that X-37B is an experimental vehicle, and the whole purpose of flying it is to perform engineering tests. It seems unrealistic to assume that any sort of active mission in support of USAF operations is being performed. Repeating a test is useful, but after you have run a program through a certain number of flights, the value of the data you obtain starts to diminish.

Launching an experimental spaceplane on three marathon flights is a huge investment, and there's no doubt that much will be learned from it. But how many test flights are needed in the program?

Beyond the third launch, it would be fair to say that the law of diminishing returns would start to apply. There's always the possibility of conducting a second flight with a "used" orbiter, possibly the second vehicle.

The program could also experiment with more orbital changes, or attitude control. Would such tests really be needed? Only an engineer with access to the program would know, and everyone is being very discreet.

The USAF did not hide its overall satisfaction with the first mission, and openly released photos and videos of the recovery of the orbiter. From a security perspective, this yielded no information about the spaceplane that wasn't already known, so the openness about this phase of the mission is understandable.

But it did reveal that the spacecraft seemed generally undamaged by its lengthy flight and subsequent re-entry. If things are working as planned, there is less incentive to test too often. This suggests that the future of the X-37B test program is probably short.

So it's possible that the third launch of X-37B could well be its last. A fourth mission could still yield some interesting results, but these may not be worth the cost of the flight.

Beyond the test phase, is there any future for the X-37B in an operational context? Could we expect a fleet of these small spaceplanes to be built and launched by the USAF? There's no official word on this, but this writer doubts it.

The vehicle is certainly useful for testing the parts that make it, and also for carrying some other experiments inside the payload bay. But even if X-37B is declared fit for routine spaceflight, what exactly could be done with it?

Long-term stays in orbit for military space missions are the domain of conventional satellites, without wings or heatshields. Yes, the X-37B could be used for certain missions such as surveillance, but it's really not the best platform for them.

Some pundits have speculated that the vehicle could pluck objects from the sky and return them to Earth, or conduct robotic servicing of other satellites. Such missions have been regularly performed by the US Space Shuttle. But the X-37B really isn't up to such complex tasks.

There's no crew and not much luggage space. Robotic servicing spacecraft have already been trialed, and they are very different beasts to a small winged spaceplane.

Thus, it seems unlikely that a slightly modified version of X-37B will be sent on active duty. Once the testing phase is complete, the orbiters will spend their retirement in hangars, and possibly find their way to museums in a decade or two.

Eventually, spaceplanes or trans-atmospheric spacecraft will build on this experience. They will carry some of the technologies tested on these vehicles. But they won't look at all like X-37B, either in size or shape. The future of the X-37B program itself may be short, but its legacy will live for a lot longer.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.

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