Subscribe free to our newsletters via your
  Space Travel News  


Subscribe free to our newsletters via your




















ROCKET SCIENCE
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 morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.



Share This Article With Planet Earth
del.icio.usdel.icio.us DiggDigg RedditReddit
YahooMyWebYahooMyWeb GoogleGoogle FacebookFacebook



Related Links
-
Rocket Science News at Space-Travel.Com



Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News


ROCKET SCIENCE
No Major Flaw In Failed GSLV-F06
Mumbai, India (PTI) Feb 07, 2011
There was no major design flaw in the Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle of the Indian Space Research Organisation - GSLV-F06 - which crashed seconds after take-off on December 25 last year, said Dr G Madhavan Nair, chairman of the fact-finding committee. The GSLV Analysis Committee headed by Nair will be able to draw final conclusion within next few weeks, he told PTI. GSLV-F06 ... read more







ROCKET SCIENCE
Vandenberg Launches Minotaur One

ISRO Awaits Data On GSLV Failure

BrahMos Aerospace To Make Cryogenic Engines For Indian Rockets

Activities At Esrange Space Center 2011

ROCKET SCIENCE
Tool Makes Search For Martian Life Easier

Mars Express Puts Craters On A Pedestal

Northern Mars Landscape Actively Changing

Martian Sand Dunes Re-Sculpted Regularly

ROCKET SCIENCE
Astrobotic Technology Annouces Lunar Mission On SpaceX Falcon 9

LRO Could Have Given Apollo 14 Crew Another Majestic View

NASA's New Lander Prototype Skates Through Integration And Testing

Draper Commits One Million Dollars To Next Giant Leap's Moon Lander

ROCKET SCIENCE
Launch Plus Five Years: A Ways Traveled, A Ways To Go

Mission To Pluto And Beyond Marks 10 Years Since Project Inception

ROCKET SCIENCE
NASA Finds Earth-Size Planet Candidates In Habitable Zone

Las Cumbres Scientists Play Key Role In New Planetry System Discovery

A Six-Planet System

Earth-Size Planet Candidates Found In Habitable Zone

ROCKET SCIENCE
Renewed Call For Competitive US Spaceflight Marketplace

Rocket Team Hot Fire AJ26 Flight Engine For Taurus II

Opening Up The X-37B

Euro-US partners eye 'low-cost' space launcher: report

ROCKET SCIENCE
U.S. wary of China space weapons

Slow progress in U.S.-China space efforts

China Builds Theme Park In Spaceport

Tiangong Space Station Plans Progessing

ROCKET SCIENCE
Car-size asteroid nears Earth Wednesday

Stardust Celebrates Twelve Years With Rocket Burn

NASA Spacecraft Closes In On Comet Tempel 1

Asteroid Busting


The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2010 - SpaceDaily. AFP and UPI Wire Stories are copyright Agence France-Presse and United Press International. ESA Portal Reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement,agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by SpaceDaily on any Web page published or hosted by SpaceDaily. Privacy Statement