Sydney, Australia (SPX) Mar 16, 2011
We are regularly warned on emergency speakers that an upcoming alarm signal is only a test. It's a necessary precaution to prevent panic. Some members of community need a similar heads-up about another imminent event.
We are now into the early stages of another flight of the X-37B spaceplane, probably the sexiest and most controversial new spacecraft in years. It's like a scaled down version of its larger cousin, the NASA Space Shuttle, but carries no crew.
Operated by the US Air Force, the X-37B operates under a layer of secrecy. Much is openly disclosed, such as its appearance, its launch, and its recovery. But the Air Force, and other agencies that are probably involved in the program, mostly keep quiet about what the spacecraft actually does on its missions.
This has led to a lot of speculation on what's going on beyond our view. Some think that it's testing cameras and other sensors for spy satellites. Others speak of it as an orbiting weapons platform or a robotic service vehicle for other satellites.
In an earlier article ("Opening Up the X-37B", SpaceDaily Feb 8 2011) I put forward a case for something more mundane. The main mission of the vehicle is simply to test the X-37B itself. This has been openly discussed by the USAF, and accepted by analysts.
X-37B is built around a variety of new technologies. The X in its name stands for "eXperimental". But there was a lot of speculation over the contents of the X-37B's tiny payload bay, which opens up in space like that of the Space Shuttle.
Nobody has officially revealed the contents of the bay on the first flight, which took place over much of 2010. There's still no talk of what lies inside on the second flight. It is widely accepted that the spacecraft deploys a solar panel on a mast from inside the bay, but nothing else is certain. This author suggested that the payload bay was probably putting some fairly mundane satellite parts through some rigorous in-flight testing. This probably included items such as batteries, electronics and mechanical actuators.
This second flight of the X-37B will probably pursue most of the same goals of the first mission. It's possible that there will be little changes to whatever type of secret cargo lies inside the payload bay. Testing often means doing the same types of things, with the same equipment, for a long time.
So two testing regimes are really taking place at the same time. The first test is the spaceplane. The second test is the cargo carried inside the X-37B payload bay. In principle, there's no strictly technical reason for both of these programs to be carried out in parallel on the same mission. But the "twin tests" have probably come about for practical reasons. The history of the program yields some light on this.
It's noteworthy that X-37B was originally a NASA program, one of several "X-rated" spacecraft recently connected to the agency. The vehicles were part of an overall goal to develop a new generation of
spacecraft. Curiously, NASA did not achieve much with any of them. Remember the X-33, a wedge- shaped prototype for a Space Shuttle replacement that would have been dubbed Venture Star? It never left the ground. Then there was X-34, a missile-like winged vehicle that would have tested re-entry surfaces and other components. It also never flew in its intended time, although there has been some talk of resurrecting this program.
X-37B was adopted by the US Air Force away from its parent agency, apparently because it suited USAF goals. The Air Force would like to develop a greater capability to operate in outer space, and also develop transatmospheric vehicles that blur the lines between aircraft and spacecraft.
The technical challenges are the same for civil and military spaceplanes, so the adoption is understandable. There's another attraction. X-37B is the only recent X-spaceplane to feature a payload bay, which sets the stage for a useful partnership.
We are also witnessing a renaissance of research and testing at the National Reconnaissance Office, the organization that launches and operates America's spy satellites. After a long period of stagnation and the spectacular collapse of a major spy satellite program, the NRO is shedding its cobwebs. They are launching new operational spy satellites and also lofting a few experimental ones, designed to test new technologies.
Sometimes, simply launching a small satellite on a small rocket (such as the NRO Taurus launch in early 2011) is enough to try things out.
But some items need to be inspected by engineers after they have been tested. For the NRO, the X-37B program provides a timely opportunity to do recoverable testing of such items. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the spacecraft re-enters safely and glides to a precise and very soft landing. Secondly, it's operated by the US Air Force, who can keep the mission fairly discreet and secret.
The USAF would probably be happy to operate the X-37B program with nothing but mementoes in the payload bay, as it would still fulfill the primary objectives of the program. But there would still be some interest in putting something useful on board.
The idea of a partnership with NRO has never been officially confirmed, but it makes sense, and fits the available evidence. NRO, an agency with more secrecy than the Air Force, has made no secret of the fact that it's gunning for more research, development and testing. USAF has made no secret of the X-37B itself, releasing beautiful pictures of the spacecraft, but the Air Force still won't let us look inside the payload bay. The pieces seem to dovetail neatly.
In theory, NRO could have launched its recoverable experiments on another type of spacecraft. These experiments probably don't care if they're on a winged spaceplane, a serviceable space platform or a stubby capsule.
There's just one problem. Short of developing a vehicle themselves, there isn't anywhere else to go. The Space Shuttle is straining to complete its work on the ISS, private US transport companies don't have any fully operational vehicles yet, and the NRO would be reluctant to hand its secret spices to foreigners.
So the latest flight is a test on at least two levels. It's not an operational spacecraft, and its mission is probably less exciting than some of the speculation would suggest. But this is solid engineering work that will certainly pay off in the long term for at least two US agencies. In the case of the NRO, we
probably won't know exactly how the next generation of spy satellites has been influenced by the X- 37B missions of today. Some mysteries can be solved through deduction, but others will need to wait for archives to be taken out from the cold.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
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