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Air Force Spaceplane Readying For Launch

Soulskill posted more than 4 years ago | from the pushing-baby-shuttles-from-the-nest dept.

Space 94

FleaPlus writes "The US Air Force is currently preparing for the launch of the secretive X-37B OTV-1 (Orbital Test Vehicle 1) spaceplane, which was transferred from NASA to DARPA back in 2004 when NASA opted to focus its budget on lunar exploration. The reusable unmanned spaceplane is set to launch in April on top of a commercial Atlas V rocket, orbit for up to 270 days while testing a number of new technologies, reenter the atmosphere, then land on auto-pilot in California."

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94 comments

Secretive Space Plane? (5, Insightful)

WrongSizeGlass (838941) | more than 4 years ago | (#31471994)

How secretive can it be if the launch is posted on /.?

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (2, Insightful)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472038)

You can strive hard to be secretive and still fail at being actually secret.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (4, Insightful)

cheesybagel (670288) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472050)

The photo caption in the article itself says: "The X-37B/OTV spacecraft undergoes final testing at Boeing. Credit: Air Force"

So no this project is not secret. It is an USAF project being handled by DARPA, but it is not secret.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31472128)

The title of the article says: Secret Military Space Plane Primed For Test Launch

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472390)

So no this project is not secret. It is an USAF project being handled by DARPA, but it is not secret.

So where was the space plane prior to showing up at Boeing? I don't recall the Air Force talking about this project before.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31473278)

Because it was under NASA control skippy.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473470)

Because it was under NASA control skippy.

Not since 2004. There's a six year gap.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473500)

So no this project is not secret. It is an USAF project being handled by DARPA, but it is not secret.

There are many different types of secret (and let's not even start on the different types of Secret). In this case, the minimum details are known, but nobody outside of the classified world actually knows what technologies will be tested on the X-37B or what it'll be doing during its up to 270 days in orbit, and no interviews are permitted.

On a side note, another cool semi-secret project is the Lockheed Martin Revolver, which is generally thought to be a prototype of a flyback first-stage booster. This means that the first stage can come back and land after it boosts the rest of the rocket up, allowing for it to be easily reused.

http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/hyperbola/2010/03/lockheed-trademarks-revolver-f.html [flightglobal.com]
Some interesting patents: http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=12755.msg556730#msg556730 [nasaspaceflight.com]

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (1)

fnj (64210) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473974)

The existence, and a picture of what it is claimed to look like, is not a secret, but just about everything else about it appears to be a secret. How come the Wikipedia page [wikipedia.org] is virtually empty? There is some good insight here: discussion [space.com] . The X-37B seems to be a pretty extensive rework of X-37A, so information about X-37A, which was nothing but a glider without any reentry heat protection, is not of much use.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (3, Insightful)

danwesnor (896499) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472206)

Let me rephrase his question - How secretive can it be if the Air Force is issuing press releases? Another rephrasing would be - Why is the OP pretending he' loosed some super secret spy stuff when all he's really done is summarized a press release?

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (4, Insightful)

BigFootApe (264256) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472394)

Everyone knows that the US has orbital photo recon. We don't have a 100% clear picture of what the capabilities are.

The fact that it's an X craft tells us this orbital space plane is a test vehicle. But a test vehicle for what? What are the ultimate objectives of the program? How does it tie in with Prompt Global Strike?

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (0, Offtopic)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472496)

But a test vehicle for what? What are the ultimate objectives of the program? How does it tie in with Prompt Global Strike?

Nuke'em from orbit.

It's the only way to be sure.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (3, Interesting)

speederaser (473477) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473032)

But a test vehicle for what? What are the ultimate objectives of the program?

Among other things, it could be used as a platform to carry and move spy satellites. Due to the limited amount of fuel they carry the orbits of spy satellites are predictable and expensive to change. The military could use this as a way to give existing spy satellites greater flexibility on orbit, leaving a satellite in orbit and flying back periodically to refuel, or returning to earth with the satellite and relaunching later. It might even be used to re-direct orbits of existing satellites to extend their useful lifetime.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (2, Interesting)

geckipede (1261408) | more than 4 years ago | (#31474608)

I think it's better to think of this thing as being a spy satellite, rather than something used to tend them. It's a spy satellite that can land itself for periodic upgrades, periodic refuels, and which doesn't need to be shunted about because it has its own engine.

It's also a fair bet that it can carry more than just sensors, but I wouldn't imagine anybody is keen to show off all of its capabilities, so for the forseeable future it'll just be carrying cameras.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31475946)

it could always be used to carry city busters. the sheer momentum of deorbiting a hunk of tungsten about the size of a phone booth could hit with the force of a tactical Nuke. just give it a nudge to put it into a couple of gravity slingshots and boom!
and the kicker is that it does not break any WMD treaties and is undetectable.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 4 years ago | (#31475982)

It is amazing what you can do with a small nuclear generator, a laser or a rail gun, and a number of space planes that can be put into space in a matter of hours. Do you think that there was a reason why DOD is paying to have SpaceX to turn around their rockets in hours?

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (1)

Kagura (843695) | more than 4 years ago | (#31478722)

Everyone knows that the US has orbital photo recon. We don't have a 100% clear picture of what the capabilities are.

The fact that it's an X craft tells us this orbital space plane is a test vehicle. But a test vehicle for what? What are the ultimate objectives of the program? How does it tie in with Prompt Global Strike?

The use of the phrase Prompt Global Strike sounds nefarious... but the program is just looking to develop a non-nuclear version of the Prompt Global Strike we can already conduct.

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (1)

Issarlk (1429361) | more than 4 years ago | (#31480012)

The plane is secretive, but itself is not a secret. I guess it doesn't have a facebook page and tries to avoid paparazzi

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31472080)

Shh! Don't tell anyone you saw this!

Re:Secretive Space Plane? (1)

NotBornYesterday (1093817) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472276)

Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the OTV program is shrouded in secrecy, but military officials occasionally release information on the the spaceplane's progress.

TFA is there for a reason.

Cool! (1)

Pikoro (844299) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472004)

Every little step gets us closer...

Re:Cool! (3, Insightful)

Jeff DeMaagd (2015) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472100)

Yes, but closer to what? The existence of this project seems to demonstrate that a lot of people didn't learn anything from the Space Shuttle. Wings on a space cargo mover add a lot of unnecessary weight that people should have concluded is more detrimental than useful. The space industry has ways to launch objects without big, heavy wings and even without a crew. The ability to use the large cargo bay to return large objects to the ground isn't that important, I can only find one example of it happening, the LDEF.

Re:Cool! (1)

argStyopa (232550) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472196)

Spot on.

The shuttle's promised capability of "bringing cargo back" is a bygone requirement of the days when retrieving a spy satellite was needed to recover the film. How many payloads did the shuttle actually BRING BACK, compared to how many times did it come back with an essentially empty cargo bay, thus purely wasting the space?

Essentially, every time it came down with an empty hold, you had needless overcomplication. Instead of a relatively simple task of bringing X people back, you had to design a vehicle that brought X people back AND meanwhile hauled a giant, empty schoolbus-worth of space, with all the concomitant engineering difficulties therewith.

With the advancement of unmanned vehicles, there is NO reason that we can't build a dedicated, redundant, deeply-failsafed SMALLER launch vehicle or system for putting people into orbit, and let the heavy crap be launched elsewise with one-shot systems that then don't need to be engineered for the complicated, dangerous process of return.

Re-use is a canard that cost us astronauts' lives.

Re:Cool! (4, Interesting)

vlm (69642) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472306)

The shuttle's promised capability of "bringing cargo back" is a bygone requirement of the days when retrieving a spy satellite was needed to recover the film. How many payloads did the shuttle actually BRING BACK, compared to how many times did it come back with an essentially empty cargo bay, thus purely wasting the space?

I doubt that you personally inspected the cargo hold after each classified military shuttle mission. Anyway, the wikipedia page you're looking for is:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deterrence_theory [wikipedia.org]

The situation would imply that, at least in low earth orbit, the USSR was violating some earth orbit treaty, or was planning to do so, and we knew it via some "special means" but needed a public way to wave a geiger counter nearby their satellite to prove it. That, or, we just wanted to shooo them out of low earth orbit.

A lack of USSR spy satellite launches into low orbit during the shuttle program, is just possibly, a side effect of the existence of the shuttle, not just some random unfortunate unexplainable quantum fluctuation that unfortunately made the shuttle useless, like you seem to imply.

Re:Cool! (2, Informative)

DrBuzzo (913503) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473172)

It would not have been that hard for the Soviet Union to launch a spy satellite that was not recoverable by the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle has fairly limited orbital insert options. Most spy satellites are in polar orbits anyway, and the shuttle can't do that - although there was, at one time, a plan that would have enabled it to do so with launches from Vandenberg using a super light weight fiber-spun tank. That never went anywhere.

Even if a satellite was in an orbit that the shuttle could get to, bringing it back? Not so easy if it won't fit neatly in the cargo bay and doesn't have some place to grasp with the Canadarm. It would also be dangerous to bring down a payload with unknown characteristics and potentially hazardous materials and functions. You really don't want it to start venting hydrazine in the cargo bay while reentering the atmosphere. Or for that matter, you don't even want to go close enough to it to "wave a geiger counter" if you don't know what the hell the satellite is going to do like fire thrusters or even use a defensive system (the Soviets actually did test on-orbit use of anti-aircraft cannons, adapted for space use)

But on the topic of recovering payloads from orbit and bringing them back: Yeah, it is fairly obsolete given that film no longer needs to be recovered and because the Space Shuttle is so expensive to launch that bringing back a damaged satellite for repair would be a lot more expensive than launching a new one. It's not **completely** obsolete though. There are still some special circumstances where a research payload may be worth recovering, like the Long Duration Exposure Facility or some other kind of research payload intended to be analyzed after a mission of some kind. That's a fairly narrow and specialized circumstance, of course.

Re:Cool! (2, Interesting)

zmollusc (763634) | more than 4 years ago | (#31474144)

Could some clever clogs please calculate the possibility of 24 tonnes of fuel being enough to move the shuttle from its usual LEO to a polar LEO?

Re:Cool! (2, Informative)

dbIII (701233) | more than 4 years ago | (#31477014)

You can get a good idea yourself very easily since it is a two dimensional problem.
You want to go from a high velocity in the X direction and zero in the Y direction to zero in the X direction and high velocity in the Y direction.
In other words around as much fuel as it took to get it up there in the first place.
You can't just turn it like a boat since there's nothing to push against so a rudder won't work.

Re:Cool! (1)

delt0r (999393) | more than 4 years ago | (#31482570)

Delta V for a plane change is not quite so bad. You can go into a elliptical orbit and then plane change at lowest momentum. But its still very expensive, yes. Generally easier to just launch into the correct plane in the first place, in which case an extra 24 tones may make enough difference to matter assuming nothing else is the problem.

Re:Cool! (1)

dbIII (701233) | more than 4 years ago | (#31476072)

A lack of USSR spy satellite launches into low orbit during the shuttle program, is just possibly, a side effect of the existence of the shuttle

It's more likely a side effect of the USSR going broke and the cold war ending. They didn't need any so they didn't launch any.
Besides, the bay has been used for a lot of things for many years so could never be considered a failure even if nothing was brought down in it.

Re:Cool! (5, Informative)

vlm (69642) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472236)

Wings on a space cargo mover add a lot of unnecessary weight that people should have concluded is more detrimental than useful. The space industry has ways to launch objects without big, heavy wings and even without a crew.

Oh, they've got plenty of ways to launch stuff without those big ole wings.

Amusingly, you're missing that the only possible use for wings on a re-entry vehicle is military...

The shuttle had them for two military reasons. The USAF kicked in a bunch of cash, or at least promised to, in exchange for:

1) Massive LANDING capacity. Grab that low earth orbit USSR spy satellite and examine it at your leisure. The USSR response is of course high earth orbit, making them less effective, and wasting satellite mass on things like self destruct systems. Much like nuclear weapons, the plan was never to actually use it, but to manipulate the other side's behavior... Why the USAR wanted the USSR out of low earth orbit in the 70s is a mystery to me. Maybe discourage orbital bombardment or space based ground attack lasers or something.

2) Abort once around and very strange orbit and reentry profiles. So you launch, do whatever cloak and dagger stuff you want, then you want to immediately land, like "NOW". Meanwhile the earth rotates underneath you. So put big old wings on to glide. So what if the L/D ratio averages only 3:1 if you start 200 miles up, that's 600 miles crossrange. Since the shuttle program promised everything to everyone, I'm sure a shuttle-class runway is accessible every 1200 miles or so, at least with a lot of imagination and creative hot-dog piloting. Also, if the Bulgarians threaten to shoot down any military overflight spacecraft, you can simply pick a bizarre orbit to avoid them, with a bizarre reentry requiring some gliding around. The ability to land anywhere at any time somewhat limits their ability to screw around with us, including watching our vehicles with their telescopes. Extra glide range adds a lot of capability to military flight plans. Civilians, of course, would simply wait and deorbit at a better time/place, but the military "needs" more capability.

Re:Cool! (1)

PPH (736903) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473646)

1) Massive LANDING capacity. Grab that low earth orbit USSR spy satellite and examine it at your leisure. The USSR response is of course high earth orbit, making them less effective, and wasting satellite mass on things like self destruct systems.

It won't take much 'wasted mass' to incorporate a self destruct mechanism of sufficient yield to make us stay clear. Re-entry vehicles are fragile. A few pounds of HE would do the trick. Heck, just firing the satellite's attitude control engines once inside the cargo hold would be a disaster.

Re:Cool! (1)

Patch86 (1465427) | more than 4 years ago | (#31476134)

Indeed, seeing as most satellite either have some sort of reactant mass or, better yet, nuclear generator, a self-destruct need be little more than overloading its kit. As has been pointed out many times before, a battery on a laptop makes a pretty spectacular bang if overloaded- almost any sort of high technology can be a bomb with the right treatment.

Re:Cool! (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 4 years ago | (#31480546)

Right, like I said, the whole point was "Much like nuclear weapons, the plan was never to actually use it, but to manipulate the other side's behavior..."

So, now the other guys are wasting expensive valuable mass and volume on self destruct mechanisms instead of larger heavier camera lenses or maneuvering fuel or electrical capacity or whatever.

Even better, a self destruct system that doesn't exist, can't accidentally fail, but one that exists, can fail. So fewer satellites are a "success".

Best of all, your spies can steal the self destruct codes or whatever and have all kinds of fun. And how exactly do you know they haven't stolen them? Remember they can spend $1 less than an expensive ASAT program and run a "paper profit", so they probably will.

Re:Cool! (2, Insightful)

CompMD (522020) | more than 4 years ago | (#31482258)

"I'm sure a shuttle-class runway is accessible every 1200 miles or so, at least with a lot of imagination and creative hot-dog piloting."

The only places in the US where the shuttle can be reasonably safely landed with sufficient support infrastructure are the Cape, Edwards AFB, and KSLN (Salina, Kansas Municipal Airport). Not kidding. KSLN is still used for Air Force activity. Its scary enough flying a little Piper there in the pattern with C-17s, knowing its possible the freaking space shuttle could be entering for long final is too much. :)

Also, there's no such thing as hot-dog piloting a glider with the aerodynamics of the shuttle. Its not called a "flying brick" for nothing...

"Amusingly, you're missing that the only possible use for wings on a re-entry vehicle is military..."

No, a perfectly legitimate non-military reason for wings is so you can choose your landing site. The Russians basically aim the Soyuz at Asia and cross their fingers. Our capsules had huge landing zones and tons of people were devoted to patrolling the ocean to spot and recover the crew and craft.

"you can simply pick a bizarre orbit to avoid them, with a bizarre reentry requiring some gliding around."

I do not think you appreciate the difficulty of orbital dynamics. You also can't just have a "bizarre reentry" because there are problems with energy dissipation and drag. There is a very well defined process for deorbiting the shuttle, and it does not leave much room for error.

Re:Cool! (1)

nurb432 (527695) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472270)

True, in space ( or getting there ) wings don't do much but hurt, but when you want to come home they help you land more efficiently/safely, and saves you from having to crash land in the water all the time, where recovery costs aren't negligible..

Re:Cool! (5, Insightful)

Daniel Dvorkin (106857) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473036)

The existence of this project seems to demonstrate that a lot of people didn't learn anything from the Space Shuttle.

The problem with the Shuttle was not that it had wings. The problem with the Shuttle was that it was designed (and redesigned, and redesigned ...) to be all things to all people. I guarantee you, if the Saturn V had been built the way the Shuttle was, it would have cost ten times as nuch and been lucky to get a tenth of the way to the Moon.

The lesson to be learned from the Shuttle is not "don't build spaceplanes," but rather "don't try to build one single vehicle for every mission that NASA, the Air Force, commercial operators, and my cousin's dog might possibly want to perform in space."

Re:Cool! (1)

Keith Henson (1588543) | more than 4 years ago | (#31477928)

Getting into space (at reasonable cost) is all about exhaust velocity.

If you can figure out how to get the exhaust velocity up to the mission velocity, a 300 ton takeoff vehicle with an empty weight of 50 tons can put 50 tons of cargo in LEO. (Mission delta V about 9 km/sec.)

The hypersonic Skylon design from Reaction Engines is projected to get an awesome 10.5 km/sec equivalent exhaust velocity till it runs out of air. Above that it doesn't get any better exhaust velocity than SSME. (4.5 km/sec)

But if you switch to laser heated hydrogen, it's possible to get an average exhaust velocity in excess of 8 km/sec. Only problem is that it takes 6 GW of laser.

If you need a million tons per year to GEO (i.e., building power satellites) then this method gets the cost per kg to under $100.

And 2 cents per kWh power.

Re:Cool! (1)

delt0r (999393) | more than 4 years ago | (#31482746)

The hypersonic Skylon design from Reaction Engines is projected to get an awesome 10.5 km/sec equivalent exhaust velocity till it runs out of air.

But whats the drag coefficient and the weight compared to just a pure rocket? The numbers really don't look good for realistic air intake drag and engine weight parameters in general. (ie all the papers on the mater require at least one step of unverified performance breakthrough).

Fact is that rockets with power to weight ratios in the 100:1 and no such thing as air intakes with associated drag, and no velocity dependent thrust. Are a pretty good match for 9km/s vehicle speed.

Re:Cool! (1)

ILuvRamen (1026668) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472522)

Closer to what? Something smarter than a rocket? lol. Why use tons of fuel to accelerate really quickly and clear the atmosphere that fast? That's about as fuel efficient as flooring it at a red light. And I don't know who pulled the escape velocity numbers out of their ass but you don't "need" to be going whatever ridiculous speed they said. You "need" to be going any positive number. Like if you're going 1 MPH upward, you'll eventually be a hundred miles away from Earth. So anyway, rockets suck and they need to make more space planes. If it can take off like a normal plane using a normal amount of fuel and use air to lift it really high then use boosters or whatever to get it the rest of the way into space, that sounds 100x less expensive and less complicated.

Re:Cool! (3, Insightful)

TheKidWho (705796) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473020)

And I don't know who pulled the escape velocity numbers out of their ass but you don't "need" to be going whatever ridiculous speed they said. You "need" to be going any positive number. Like if you're going 1 MPH upward, you'll eventually be a hundred miles away from Earth.

Spoken like a true idiot. Of course you can do it at 1MPH, however you still need to maintain a force to counteract gravity. At 1MPH, you will be spending a literal shit ton of fuel just to maintain that 1MPH speed, spend more fuel, go faster, win.

Also, you do need a certain velocity to escape Earth's gravity, if you managed to somehow get into Low Earth Orbit at 1MPH you would simply fall like a stone back into the Earth. If you achieve escape velocity however, you can maintain an orbit around the planet.

Something tells me you're not an aerospace engineer.

Re:Cool! (1)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | more than 4 years ago | (#31474788)

If you achieve escape velocity however, you can maintain an orbit around the planet.

No, if you achieve escape speed, then you can ESCAPE earth's orbit. Not only can you, but you will, by definition.

If you want to maintain an orbit, a good speed is "orbital speed", which is about Vesc * sqrt(0.5).

Re:Cool! (1)

TheKidWho (705796) | more than 4 years ago | (#31479598)

Yes, you're right, my mistake. I am not an aerospace engineer, just a lowly mechanical engineer so these words are a bit out of my vocabulary.

However, orbital speed is entirely dependent on the altitude of the orbit AFAIK so it's not simply Vesc*sqrt(.5), but sqrt(g*r) where g is dependent on the distance from the Earth itself.

Yes, you probably know this already.

270 days (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31472072)

Hmmm, an autonomous space vehicle capable of remaining in orbit for 270 days and then re-entering the atmosphere and performing a precision landing anywhere on the globe. I wonder what they're going to put in that 7 foot by 4 foot cargo hold?

Re:270 days (2, Insightful)

couchslug (175151) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472158)

"I wonder what they're going to put in that 7 foot by 4 foot cargo hold?"

Others will wonder too, which is obviously the point.

Re:270 days (5, Interesting)

khallow (566160) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472204)

There's a lot of unpleasant stuff you can put in there. My guess is "rods from god", that is, a payload of tungsten or depleted uranium rods that you can drop on a target. If you can get a rod to hit with it's orbital velocity (8 km/s), that would be roughly 7 kilotons (TNT) of energy per kilogram of rod. Halving the velocity of impact (which to me seems achievable and more viable than my first number) would still result in almost 2 kilotons of energy per kg of rod. My view is that this would be more effective than a few nuclear bombs (perhaps the most unpleasant payload you can put in there) since you aren't restricted (ok, less restricted since there's at least one treaty (Outer Space Treaty?)that prohibits any weaponization of space) by treaty, you don't cross an arms-race threshold, and you get similar delivery energies.

They also can have more flexibility to launch recon and spy technology. Maybe they're looking at retrieving satellites in order to get more data out of them. Remember physically moving data is still the fastest way to move data. You are restricted in how much data you can transfer from space to ground via radio. Maybe they're planning satellites that can generate petabytes or more of data (1,000 terabytes) and return it to Earth. For example, multispectral scans of the Earth at 1 meter resolution. A single byte of information per square meter would be roughly 150 terabytes of data. A single byte of information per 10 cm (decimeter) square would be 15 petabytes of information.

The vehicle could act as a spy satellite (it could beam some of them down in real time) while archiving everything it sees. The DoD gets both a 270 day satellite with latest technology and a massive, comprehensive archive which it can dig through at its leisure.

Re:270 days (2, Interesting)

girlintraining (1395911) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472290)

There's a lot of unpleasant stuff you can put in there. My guess is "rods from god", that is, a payload of tungsten or depleted uranium rods that you can drop on a target.

Yeah, if we ignore the fact that should something go wrong and the uranium be exposed to plasma during re-entry, we've got a rather large area that's been coated in DU.

Maybe they're looking at retrieving satellites in order to get more data out of them. Remember physically moving data is still the fastest way to move data. You are restricted in how much data you can transfer from space to ground via radio.

That might be true enough, but in the 70s they used to drop the film from satellites and then have it caught mid-air by a retrieval aircraft. It's not exactly difficult to build an ejection mechanism into a satellite, or track the return of the package to Earth when you control the initial vector, orbit, and timing. Why expend all that fuel to travel upwards, when you can just drop it?

For example, multispectral scans of the Earth at 1 meter resolution. A single byte of information per square meter would be roughly 150 terabytes of data. A single byte of information per 10 cm (decimeter) square would be 15 petabytes of information.

I think optical transmission would be a better way to send that amount of data. The visual spectrum of light is 400-790 THz and the only thing you need to receive the signal is a clear sky. If we're looking at transmitting massive amounts of data in a way that isn't necessarily time-sensitive, I'd suggest optical data transfer. Of course, you have to buffer all that data...

The DoD gets both a 270 day satellite with latest technology and a massive, comprehensive archive which it can dig through at its leisure.

The value of most surveillance is directly proportional to how soon it can be retrieved, processed, analyzed, and a decision made and executed based on the analysis via the chain of command. If you know that your high value target, Achmed the Terrorist is going to be visiting a friend's flat at 7:30pm tonight, according to an intercepted cell phone call, but it's in an area with lots of known hostiles, you probably want to recon the area from 7:00--8:00pm using something with enough resolution to be reasonably sure Achmed the Terrorist has shown up at the house, and then maintain that surveillance until a tactical squad can reach the area. LEO vehicles, which is what this is, can have an orbital time of as little as 90 minutes. Yes, you get better resolution on your images, but there's a tradeoff: You don't get as much time over the target.

If you want a more plausible scenario for the use of this -- inter-satellite communication. You can use a much, much wider band of RF to transmit in space than on the ground, and it goes a lot farther. Ground-based interception of this is, for all intents and purposes, impossible.

Re:270 days (1)

ColdWetDog (752185) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472542)

Don't think Achmed the terrorist. Think Achmed the Iranian nuclear weapons developer.

Having some military option that the Israelis don't have is useful, if for no other reason than to keep the aforementioned folks on the ground as opposed to mucking things up with an air strike.

Re:270 days (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31512946)

You are making a joke, right?
Israel has more than 300 nuclear bombs, including neutron bombs... And because israel practically owns the us through the white house zionists and wall street bankers... the have the space capability.

Re:270 days (1, Interesting)

frieko (855745) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472324)

Uh, that would be 7 kiloGRAMS, not 7 kilotons. It's far cheaper to just drop 7 kg of TNT out of an airplane.

http://www.google.com/search?q=%28.5*1kg*%288km%2Fs%29^2%29+%2F+%284.184+gigajoules+%2F+ton%29 [google.com]

Re:270 days (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31472894)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rods_from_god

Re:270 days (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473368)

Sorry, I made a bad error with the velocity, multiply it by a factor of 1,000 and then squaring it. I should have known better since I've discussed energy content of getting to orbit before.

Re:270 days (2, Interesting)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 4 years ago | (#31476190)

Yes, it would be cheaper. It would also be EASY to pick that up and unable to adjust easily.

OTH, a SMALL SMALL crowbar sized rod with fins and a chip, will be undetectable. In addition, being able to send them one after another will allow a site to be decimated piece after piece. Such as taking out a nuclear sub base that is buried under ground. Or taking out a nuclear warhead manufacturing site.

Re:270 days (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472378)

For the recon idea, they can of course losslessly compress the data significantly.

Instead, I think there's a better reason. Being able to move around in space would increase their unpredictability. For example, current recon satellites are apparently relatively predictable in their orbits (they need to stay up for a decade or more so their ability to maneuver is limited by the need for a longer life). Something that can completely shift it's orbit frequently has a better chance of surprising someone in the act of doing something sneaky.

Here here - please mod up (1)

spineboy (22918) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473076)

Some bad guys plan their activities around known satellite "blank" times, when there is no overhead birds taking a look. Having the randomness in it makes it a bit harder to do so.

Re:Here here - please mod up (1)

PPH (736903) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473736)

But maneuverability in orbit != reentry capability.

Every kilogram of equipment necessary to support reentry is one kilogram less of maneuvering fuel aboard an expendable satellite.

I can think of one application combining maneuverability and reentry capability. That would be the ability to 'skip' off the atmosphere in order to grab a sample (from an atmospheric nuke test perhaps).

Re:270 days (1)

Seth Kriticos (1227934) | more than 4 years ago | (#31474024)

If you can get a rod to hit with it's orbital velocity (8 km/s), that would be roughly 7 kilotons (TNT) of energy per kilogram of rod.

That's a big if: you ignore atmospheric drag here (terminal velocity). An object dropped from orbit will de-accelerate the closer it comes to the surface (falls through thicker atmosphere). Your rod would hit the ground with around 200-2000 mph depending on the aerodynamics and some other factors.. that is, if it has a heat shield and don't burn up while crossing the upper atmosphere.

You would have to drop an insanely big and massive object to counter drag (think of a mountain). Not practical at all.

Re:270 days (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 4 years ago | (#31475030)

That's a big if: you ignore atmospheric drag here (terminal velocity).

The rod shape and high density results in a high mass per cross-sectional area and a very high terminal velocity. As I was saying, I think 4km/s is viable.

Re:270 days (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | more than 4 years ago | (#31475816)

I wonder what they're going to put in that 7 foot by 4 foot cargo hold?

Well, 7 feet tall leaves open the option to put humans in there, probably two in space suits.

Militarization of space (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31472170)

What happened to all the international conventions on leaving the space unmilitarized?

Re:Militarization of space (1)

karlwilson (1124799) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472266)

That debate is over the weaponization of space not the militarization. The military has been operating equipment in space (i.e. GPS satellites) for decades.

That's kind of the point... (1)

mbessey (304651) | more than 4 years ago | (#31485318)

It's not an orbital WMD platform, that would be against the treaty. It's just a plane..which can stay in orbit for most of a year...and drop a nuke anywhere in the world, at any time. Totally different thing.

Nice but nowhere near enough (5, Interesting)

wisebabo (638845) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472282)

While it is nice that this will give the Air Force a means of getting an expensive payload up into orbit and back down again quickly and safely (like onto a runway as opposed to a parachute landing on the ground or at sea) it really doesn't help the overall problem of making access to LEO significantly cheaper. Remember when you're in LEO, you're halfway to anywhere (I forget who said that quote but from the viewpoint of orbital energistics it is true).

Now that the Obama administration has (hopefully) set us on the right course by FIRST developing the technologies to get us into space, THEN trying to get somewhere, now maybe would be a time to revisit some abandoned ideas. Like the X-34 (I think it was called "Venture Star") using a deltoid lifting body with an aerospike engine it promised to make SSTO (Single Stage to Orbit) possible. Or the "Delta Clipper" a vertical takeoff and vertical landing rocket, I think they got to 1/4 scale.

While I don't know if the "Delta Clipper" was fatally flawed (I think one of its landing struts collapsed), I heard that the problem with the "Venture Star" was they simply couldn't make the (then) state of the art composite fuel tanks work. So has material science improved enough to make it feasible? Or do we have to wait until "magic" carbon nano-tubes can make eggshells seem like horribly efficient containers?

An Air Force General once said: "A new plane doesn't make a new engine possible, a new engine makes a new plane possible." That's why the aerospike engine had such promise because it automatically adapted to the changing surrounding air pressure to keep the "nozzle" shape efficient. That (with new and improved) fuel tanks, just might make SSTO possible which, aside from space elevators or air breathing hypersonic space planes, is the only way we'll REALLY bring down the cost of getting into orbit.

Re:Nice but nowhere near enough (5, Informative)

downix (84795) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472700)

You are thinking the X-33, and it was designed to be a scale model of the eventual craft, Venture Star.

Aerospike is just one approach, the one favored by one of the major rocket engine producers, Rocketdyne. Fundimentally, it works as an inverted rocket bell, using the outside air to contain the thrust. It is 90% as efficient as a traditional engine optimized for a particular section of the atmosphere, with the advantage that it keeps the same performance all throughout the atmospheric run.

The other major rocket engine producer, Aerojet, instead is pushing forward a rocket "afterburner, the Thrust Augmented Nozzle. Using a TAN, a traditioninal Hydrolox engine would have kerosene and oxygen injected directly to the engine bell, reducing the overall impulse while greatly improving the thrust, ideal for liftoff, while then throttling back the kerolox to the space-optimized high-isp hydrolox once out of the atmosphere, and smoothly transitioning between the two by throttling back the augmentation, keeping the performance optimized throughout the whole range of operation for what was needed.

I agree, developing the technologies first gives us far more capability. In addition, if you truely want to return to the moon, ULA, the primary rocket manufacturer in the US, has put on the table a proposal to do just that, with the existing non-shuttle lifting technology, while simultaneously reducing the cost to LEO through mass production. You can read their proposal here:

http://www.ulalaunch.com/docs/publications/AffordableExplorationArchitecture2009.pdf [ulalaunch.com]

Re:Nice but nowhere near enough (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31478948)

Remember, the important thing is to cancel each advanced development program either a) sometime before it produces a working technology, or b) if it has actually produced a working technology. This is an especially effective strategy because cancelling something that actually works is extremely depressing to those who care about the results. It is great, though, to cancel a project after billions have been spent, if serious technological issues have been identified but not yet solved, because this will help to effectively prevent attempts to fund the project again.

Cancellation of inspiring projects is a very effective means of proving that government cannot do anything right. Another effective method is to complain that projects with no market other than government should be done by the private sector. When there is no private market, projects can be cancelled by complaining about waste, abuse, managers buying flowers, whatever.

The most important issue, other than cancelling existing projects, is starting new projects using the capital spending that could have been used to complete the old projects, because in this way projects that can be cancelled in the future will always be available.

Re:Nice but nowhere near enough (2, Interesting)

moosesocks (264553) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473544)

Remember when you're in LEO, you're halfway to anywhere (I forget who said that quote but from the viewpoint of orbital energistics it is true).

Well, that really depends on where/when you want to go, and whether or not you want to get back. Orbital mechanics is not as simple as escaping earth's gravitational field, and pointing in the right direction.

Mind you, it *is* a big obstacle that we have yet to overcome effectively, although it's hardly the only one. Think of how massive the Saturn V rockets were in comparison to the tiny spacecraft on top. Heck -- the US still hasn't mastered getting humans into LEO cheaply, safely, or effectively, while the Russians seem to have proved that Soyuz capsules are cheap and indestructible (albeit only good for a single use).

Re:Nice but nowhere near enough (1)

Patch86 (1465427) | more than 4 years ago | (#31476232)

Whichever way you look at it, escaping the planet is pretty much the most expensive part of the journey, in terms of fuel. If you can make that part easy, it gives you far greater leeway in dealing with the later, more intellectually complicated bits.

Soyuz NOT cheap! (2, Interesting)

wisebabo (638845) | more than 4 years ago | (#31479562)

Sorry, at $20 million (more now I think) per passenger to orbit, I don't think Soyuz capsules are THAT cheap. We really need one of the technologies discussed before to lower costs a factor of ten (ideally a factor of a hundred).

I still think just getting to orbit cheaply is THE main hurdle. Once you're there (and again, if getting there is cheap enough so you don't have to sweat every last ounce/gram), there are lots of things you can try. Like VASIMIR or magnetic "bubbles" being pushed by the solar wind (not the same thing as a solar sail) or nuclear thermal. If getting to orbit was cheap enough so you could build life support with 2x (or more) redundancy or just bring up SCUBA tanks maybe it would make designing/building space craft easier. Cheap orbital access? Okay then we can protect ourselves against cosmic rays by shielding our spaceships with WATER (and give the astronauts a really fun zero-g pool to use on the trip).

Think how much easier space travel would be if the costs were something like that to resupply our base in Antarctica. I mean they have ATMs and (I think) a McDonalds! (Okay I'm dreaming now, maybe that won't come about until we had a space elevator).

THIS is where our space program went (1)

transami (202700) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472572)

It saddens me deeply to see the Air Force space program advancing at the expense of our civil space program.

Re:THIS is where our space program went (1)

daveime (1253762) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472596)

If they can do it cheaper and more efficiently, why the hell not ?

Just look at the money they saved already on public relations and press releases by keeping the whole thing secret.

Re:THIS is where our space program went (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31476042)

and not having the bureaucrats get into a multi-year pissing contest over which state gets what

Re:THIS is where our space program went (2, Informative)

M1FCJ (586251) | more than 4 years ago | (#31472720)

Reminds me of the Gemini project. A lot of people conveniently forget that the Gemini project was born out of USAF's manned space programme and was inserted into NASA's plans. That's why it flew on Titans. Originally there was no spacecraft between Apollo and Mercury projects. Gemini was the most successful projects of all manned flights where a huge number of firsts were established.

In the end MOL got cancelled, Military space programme was cancelled and NASA's budget was cut and eventually most of the Apollo projects were cancelled even before Apollo 11, more after that. Don't blame Obama for NASA's state, blame Bush with his lofty targets and no additional budget for the named targets... The result was a useless spacecraft - does anyone remember the original spec of 7 astronauts? It couldn't hardly do four as its last design, decades after Apollo.

Re:THIS is where our space program went (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#31473000)

You have it backwards. The USAF X-20 Dyna-Soar and X-15 programs were well underway until Gemini and Apollo came along and took all the funding and personnel. Now 50 years later they're trying to complete what the X-20 program started.

The X-15 program spent 2.5 billion and made 199 flights.
The X-20 program spent 1.5 billion before it was canceled.
Apollo cost 22.5 billion.

Note that NASA used much of the data gathered from these two programs and as such did not have to incur those costs.

The big secret is the re-entry ablative spike (5, Interesting)

TwineLogic (1679802) | more than 4 years ago | (#31473292)

If you check out the photos on Wikipedia of X-37B underneath the Rutan lift vehicle, you can see what looks like a flagpole sticking out of the nose. This spike is retracted at launch and extended prior to re-entry. The purpose of the spike is to create the leading sonic boom (hypersonic bow wave) and transonic region during re-entry -- well in front of the vehicle itself. The atmosphere reaching the wings and thermal protection surfaces is much slower than the hypersonic bow wave -- thus less heating occurs on the fuselage than on the spike.

The retractable/extensible spike absorbs such an enormous amount of energy and transforms it into heat, yet the spike is not very massive. In order to dissipate the heat without transferring it to the fuselage or melting in an uncontrolled manner, the spike is designed to ablate like many heat shields have (e.g. Apollo). "Ablate" means that the spike flakes apart in a controlled manner which leaves behind useful which continues to be the interface between the craft and the hypersonic flow.

The spike is shown extended in the re-entry test photo because the vehicle was configured for re-entry.

Before GWB scuttled Al Gore's X-38 ISS re-entry vehicle, there had been some talk of incorporating the ablative re-entry spike into ISS return craft. It appeared from the outside (I'm not an insider) that the military community in the US was getting paranoid that revealing the secret ablative spike technology to the foreign competition.

Re:The big secret is the re-entry ablative spike (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 4 years ago | (#31474272)

Do you know where I could find more info on ablative reentry spikes? I've been reading space-related sites for a while, and I'm surprised I haven't heard about them previously, but the idea seems to make a lot of sense.

Re:The big secret is the re-entry ablative spike (1)

TwineLogic (1679802) | more than 4 years ago | (#31475642)

Earlier today I tried to find more information using web searches and my impression is that less information is available now than years ago when I was reading about the X-37B's spike. I ran across it because I was a huge fan of the X-40 idea (actually I am still a huge fan of the X-40 ISS return vehicle) before the X-40 was cancelled.

Unfortunately, I don't have any information on the subject further than what I recall from now-missing web articles. If you find anything, let me know!

Re:The big secret is the re-entry ablative spike (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 4 years ago | (#31477190)

I asked about it elsewhere [nasaspaceflight.com], and it's probably just an air data boom, often used on test aircraft. Here's an image of one on the Space Shuttle:

http://images.jsc.nasa.gov/luceneweb/fullimage.jsp?searchpage=true&keywords=enterprise&textsearch=Go&hitsperpage=30&pageno=2&photoId=S77-28140 [nasa.gov]

Re:The big secret is the re-entry ablative spike (1)

TwineLogic (1679802) | more than 4 years ago | (#31477364)

Are most air-data booms attached to the load-bearing super-structure like that?
Does the Shuttle's air data boom extend through the Thermal Protection system of the nose -- the hottest are of the TPS during re-entry?
No and no.

I hate to say this since I can't reference them, but in the past there were more photos of X-37 on-line and the boom very clearly is an integral part of the green superstructure, with the mechanism running the entire length of the craft.

Also, if you ask people who work for NASA or the Air Force, what answer would you expect? "Yes, it's a secret ablative re-entry device?"

I realize my claim here is essentially unfalsifiable and non-Popperian, I can only say "trust me" that I have seen other photos of the X-37 and I am pretty sure the attachment is for more than an air data boom.

I also am not suggesting that the device attached in the photos from the air-drop test is a special material spike, nor am I suggesting that pitot instruments were not mounted on it. In fact, I am certain that pitot tubes were mounted on it. Of course there is no reason to attach an actual re-entry boom for the low-altitude drops. The aerodynamic test boom shown in the images I have found is, I am sure, shaped like the boom which will be used in re-entry but not an actual example of such a boom.

However, that does not change my impression that the load-bearing connection to the green structure is tremendously more robust than would be required by any air data probe. The boom itself is much larger in diameter than the air data probe used, e.g., on the F-5E test vehicle for shaped supersonic booms.

Re:The big secret is the re-entry ablative spike (1)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 4 years ago | (#31478158)

Are most air-data booms attached to the load-bearing super-structure like that?
Does the Shuttle's air data boom extend through the Thermal Protection system of the nose -- the hottest are of the TPS during re-entry?
No and no.

I hate to say this since I can't reference them, but in the past there were more photos of X-37 on-line and the boom very clearly is an integral part of the green superstructure, with the mechanism running the entire length of the craft.

Very interesting points, although by its very nature we unfortunately can't really conclude very much one way or another right now.

Re:The big secret is the re-entry ablative spike (3, Informative)

TwineLogic (1679802) | more than 4 years ago | (#31474306)

Re:The big secret is the re-entry ablative spike (1)

twosat (1414337) | more than 4 years ago | (#31477004)

Actually, it is an air data boom used in atmospheric testing. I have been following the X-37B too and I do not recall ever seeing mention about a re-entry ablative spike a.k.a an aerospike. The following is from http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=5364.msg560226;topicseen#new [nasaspaceflight.com] discussing your post: Re: X-37 to fly on a Atlas V in 2010 Reply #472 on: 03/14/2010 08:30 PM I came across the following slashdot comment about the X-37 having an "ablative spike" (which seems to be in the WK2 photos). Anybody know anything more about this, if the comment below is nonsense, or if ablative reentry spikes have been tested in the past? http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1582228&cid=31473292 [slashdot.org] Logged Jim Night Gator Full Member ***** Offline Posts: 3869 Location: Cape Canaveral Spaceport Re: X-37 to fly on a Atlas V in 2010 Reply #473 on: 03/14/2010 09:03 PM Quote from: neilh on 03/14/2010 08:30 PM I came across the following slashdot comment about the X-37 having an "ablative spike" (which seems to be in the WK2 photos). Anybody know anything more about this, if the comment below is nonsense, or if ablative reentry spikes have been tested in the past? There is no such thing on X-37. It is just some B S by someone incorrect Does the shuttle have one? Yes it did, it is a air data boom. Very common on new aircraft configs undergoing flight test. http://images.jsc.nasa.gov/luceneweb/fullimage.jsp?searchpage=true&keywords=enterprise&textsearch=Go&hitsperpage=30&pageno=2&photoId=S77-28140 [nasa.gov]

Autopilot?!?!? (1)

myowntrueself (607117) | more than 4 years ago | (#31474366)

So does that mean that the USA have finally caught up with the Buran?

The Russian Buran project may not have made it into production but at least the first test launch was not manned and the craft was able to take of and land with no crew on board.

Air force finally free of Shuttle? (1)

AaronLawrence (600990) | more than 4 years ago | (#31478944)

Interesting, it looks like the USAF is finally getting free of the shuttle boondoggle they got caught up in. Also interesting, it seems like they still want return from orbit capabilities (which vastly complicated the shuttle in many ways).
More rationally they are making it unmanned instead of shackling it with people.
Unfortunately being purely military we will hear a lot less about it's real capabilities....

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