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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Air Force sends Mystery Mini-shuttle Back to Space



Air Force's  X-37B  Mini-shuttle  Shrouded in  Secrecy


Todd Halvorson, Florida Today

Scientists worldwide have various theories about the mission and reasons behind the Air Force's mini-shuttle.)

3:52PM EST December 9. 2012 - CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The military's mysterious mini-shuttle is set to launch this week on a classified mission that has captured the imaginations of everyone from amateur satellite trackers to anti-nuclear protestors and potential military adversaries Russia and China.
Built by Boeing's secretive Phantom Works in Huntington Beach, Calif., the Air Force X-37B spacecraft is rumored to be everything from a space bomber to a satellite-killer or a test-bed for advanced spy satellite sensors.
The Air Force is revealing little.
"Inquiring minds want to know, right?" said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a leading source of defense, space and intelligence information.
"But posing this question presumes that (the mini-shuttle) does serve some specific purpose. And I think that might be imposing greater rationality on the whole thing than is warranted."
Birthed by NASA in 1999, the project shifted to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004, and then to the U.S. Air Force in 2006. Tuesday's planned launch of the winged vehicle will be the X-37B's third mission.
Pike thinks the program exists, well, because it exists.
"To the extent that it does have a purpose, I think its purpose is to keep the Chinese guessing as to what the purpose is."
The Union of Concerned Scientists holds a similar view. The nonprofit group says that bureaucratic inertia "may help keep the space-plane concept alive."
"In a time of tightening budgets, the administration and Congress should take a close look at the X-37B program and figure out why they're spending money on a program that has no persuasive rationale," said Laura Grego, a senior scientist with the organization.
Here's what we do know about the mini-shuttle set to launch atop an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida:
— About one-fourth of the size of a NASA shuttle orbiter, the X-37B is a reusable, robotic vehicle.
— The unmanned spacecraft has no crew cabin, no life support systems, and neither the Air Force nor NASA has indicated a desire to upgrade it for human spaceflight.
— From stem to stern, the spaceship is 29 feet in length, about the size of a small school bus.
— The solar-powered spaceship is designed to remain in orbit up to 270 days. The second X-37B mission flew for 469 days.
In comparison, shuttles were powered by fuel cells that limited its orbital flights. The longest shuttle mission lasted 17 days, 15 hours and 53 minutes.
— The project's total cost is unknown because the budget has been classified since the X-37B project was transferred to DARPA in 2004.
What is known: NASA, Boeing and the Air Force spent $208 million ($125 million from NASA, $67 million from Boeing with the Air Force chipping in $16 million) on initial development between 1998 and the end of 2002. In November 2002, Boeing was awarded a $301 million contract to continue development.
— The X-37B's most unique capability: It can re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land autonomously — with no pilot.
Boeing built two X-37B spacecraft for orbital flight. The first launched from Cape Canaveral in April 2010, the second blasted off in March 2011. Both of those missions concluded with landings at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Air Force is also looking at consolidating landing, refurbishment and launch operations on the Space Coast.
So, what exactly does the X-37B do?




Air Force sends Mystery Mini-shuttle Back to Space

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The military's small, top-secret version of the space shuttlerocketed into orbit Tuesday for a repeat mystery mission, two years after making the first flight of its kind.
The Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft Tuesday hidden on top of an Atlas V rocket.
It's the second flight for this original X-37B spaceplane. It circled the planet for seven months in 2010. A second X-37B spacecraft spent more than a year in orbit.
These high-tech mystery machines — 29 feet long — are about one-quarter the size of NASA's oldspace shuttles and can land automatically on a runway. The two previous touchdowns occurred in Southern California; this one might end on NASA's three-mile-long runway once reserved for the space agency's shuttles.
The military isn't saying much if anything about this new secret mission. In fact, launch commentary ended 17 minutes into the flight.
But one scientific observer, Harvard University's Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speculates the spaceplane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a testbed for future satellites.
.... 
The two previous secret flights were in 200-plus-mile-high orbits, circling at roughly 40-degree angles to the equator. That means the craft flew over the swatch between 40 degrees or so north latitude and 40 degrees or so south latitude.
That puts Russia's far north out of the spaceplane's observing realm, McDowell noted. "It might be studying Middle Eastern latitudes or it might just be being used for sensor tests over the United States," he said.
Contributing Sources:

SpaceX challenged the antitrust legality of the launch services monopoly on October 23, 2005. SpaceX is interested in competing for government launch contracts with the Falcon 9 rocket. On January 7, 2006 the Department of Defense gave preliminary approval to the United Launch Alliance.[citation needed]
United Launch Alliance: http://www.ulalaunch.com/site/default.shtml



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