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Opening Up The X-37B

The X-37B looks like a smaller version of the NASA Space Shuttle. Like its big brother, it has a payload bay in its centre with two clamshell doors.
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Feb 08, 2011
The US Air Force's X-37B spaceplane has generated a lot of attention and suspicion, even before the vehicle blasted off on its maiden voyage in April 2010. Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that the vehicle is an orbiting weapon, designed to attack other satellites or ground targets.

This is highly implausible, for a variety of reasons, but it hints at the lack of certain facts about the spaceplane and its tasks. More sober guesses about the X-37B's purpose include space reconnaissance and the testing of new sensor equipment.

Despite the secrecy of the X-37B's first mission, which lasted around 220 days, there are some things that are known for sure. We know that simply testing the spaceplane itself was a major goal of the first flight, and the vehicle seems to have performed well. The USAF was not shy about releasing photography and video of the X-37B's recovery in December 2010.

It was obvious that the vehicle had sustained no major damage from its long voyage, although it was later revealed that the spacecraft had received a few hits from space debris and blew a tire on landing. Apart from satisfying the curiosity of the public, this was a clear way of boasting to other nations that the spacecraft had succeeded in its main tests.

Further confirmation of this success came in early 2010, when it was confirmed that a second X-37B would fly in March 2010. This was a fairly rapid turnaround for a new vehicle. It suggested that no major gremlins had plagued the first mission, and no big changes were needed in the second vehicle.

We've seen plenty of photographs of the X-37B. We know its size and shape. We know a lot about its sub-systems, thanks to some cutaway diagrams. But the middle is a riddle.

The X-37B looks like a smaller version of the NASA Space Shuttle. Like its big brother, it has a payload bay in its centre with two clamshell doors.

The payload bay is small. It's only 2.1 metres by 1.2 metres in size. Some photography has been published of the payload bay with its actual payload inside, but the doors to the bay are always closed. We really don't know the contents of the payload bay for the first flight, or the second.

Artwork published before the first mission shows the vehicle in orbit, with its payload bay doors open. The spacecraft has deployed a small solar panel array on a mast. There's also a small telescope folded inside the payload bay on a mounting system. Radiators for heat are shown on the inside of the payload bay doors, just like the NASA shuttle. It all looks nice. Does this reflect what really lies inside?

Part of it is almost certainly true. The spacecraft could not remain in orbit for so long without a reliable source of electrical power. There would need to be a solar panel deployed from the payload bay, as statements about the vehicle have suggested. The panel depicted in the artwork looks realistic and could very well be an accurate depiction of the real thing. Similarly, the spacecraft needs radiators.

But what of the telescope? And what else is there inside the bay?

This author suggests that some form of antenna boom was also probably deployed. It's hard to see any structure in the artwork that resembles an antenna, either as a rod, dish or other structure. This is curious. Is there something we are not supposed to see? Perhaps some advanced type of antenna was used on this mission, and it cannot be revealed.

Alternatively, the spacecraft could have also been testing something exotic, like a laser communications system. This is speculation, but it cannot be disproved without evidence, and it's more plausible than some of the theories that have been circulated about the vehicle.

The idea of carrying a telescope inside the payload bay as a test for spy satellites is not as useful as it may seem. True, you can build a telescope, put it in the bay, test it, and bring it back. But is this really the best thing to fly in the bay?

There's a need to test new optical and optoelectronic systems. But there are probably cheaper and easier ways of doing this than flying a recoverable spacecraft.

You send the test article up on a small- scale satellite and see what sort of pictures you get back. That's exactly what happens on an operational mission. With few moving parts or volatile substances, these items are fairly mechanically stable. Recovering the test payload would produce little useful data for a considerable expense.

This sort of non-recoverable testing, all done remotely, is probably behind the recent launch of a small NRO satellite on a Minotaur rocket. The classified launch is probably a small, mundane satellite bus with a few new parts to test. The timing of this launch, sandwiched between two launches of the X- 37B, is interesting.

It demonstrates an openly stated policy within NRO of boosting investment in new technology. With plenty of launch options to choose from, only a payload that needed to be examined very carefully after flight would be placed aboard a recoverable spacecraft.

So what payloads are so important that they need to be taken up and brought back intact? In short, troublesome things that could fail, and have the potential to kill a large, expensive NRO intelligence- gathering satellite.

The payload bay of X-37B probably has a few small engineering cameras. These would confirm that the payload bay doors are open and the solar panel has unfurled. But that's probably all the optics this bird carries. Elsewhere in the bay, X-37B is probably road-testing batteries, power systems, electronics, mechanical shutters, and other mundane components that run NRO satellites.

There would be some telemetry to confirm that these things are working in space. But the real testing will come later, when engineers examine them on the ground. How have they degraded after such a long mission? Can a lifespan for these parts be extrapolated after several months in space?

It's possible that some components that flew on the first X-37B mission have been included on the second mission. This would allow the same component to be tested before flight, halfway through an extended test (at the end of the first mission) and after more than a year in space (at the end of the second mission). Such intensive testing would generate more useful data than a simple "before and after" experiment.

These suggestions could be wrong, but there are arguments to support them. Until more is revealed about what is actually carried aboard this spacecraft, nobody outside the program will really know.

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

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