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The Military Transportation Science

US Air Force Launches Secret Flying Twinkie 234

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the that's-one-big-twinkie dept.
Spectrummag writes "One of the most secretive US Air Force spaceflights in decades, launched this month, is keeping aficionados guessing as to the nature of the secret. The 6000-kilogram, 8-meter X-37B, nicknamed the flying Twinkie because of its stubby-winged shape, is supposed to orbit Earth for several weeks, maneuver in orbit, then glide home. What's it for? Space expert James Oberg tracks the possibilities."
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US Air Force Launches Secret Flying Twinkie

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  • by Skyshadow (508) * on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:31PM (#32087920) Homepage

    "That's a big twinkie..."

  • Well, obviously it's to nuke the site from orbit, you know why. Then again, They might just want us to think that. They always do...
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by PopeRatzo (965947) *

      They might just want us to think that.

      First, if we're hearing about it now, the technology has probably been used by the black ops folks for a couple of decades.

      Second, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that there are technologies in this "twinkie" that do not have terrestrial sources.

      Third, whoever is involved, I'd bet that zero elected officials have knowledge of, or have oversight of, the project. Black ops are a fifth branch of the military, better funded than the Marines, that operate completely withou

      • Second, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that there are technologies in this "twinkie" that do not have terrestrial sources.

        Like Velcro and the CD?

      • by NekSnappa (803141)
        When I was in the Corps, it seemed like a lot of Boy Scout troops were better funded than the Marines.
      • by dgatwood (11270)

        Cheney probably got let in on it because he's obviously a reptilian.

        Don't blame me; I voted for Kodos.

  • by gyrogeerloose (849181) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:31PM (#32087936) Journal
    ...it should be able to remain in orbit indefinitely without deteriorating.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by dskzero (960168)

      ...it should be able to remain in orbit indefinitely without deteriorating.

      No, it won't. http://www.snopes.com/food/ingredient/twinkies.asp [snopes.com]

    • by gclef (96311)

      As someone who's actually eaten a stale twinkie (in the name of science!), it won't deteriorate, but it will get kinda gummy...

    • by Daetrin (576516)
      Believe it or not, Twinkies have an expiration date. Some day very soon, life's little Twinkie gauge is gonna go... empty.
      • by dgatwood (11270)

        That said, make no mistake about it: after the nuclear holocaust, the only things that will be alive are cockroaches and Twinkies.

        • That said, make no mistake about it: after the nuclear holocaust, the only things that will be alive are cockroaches and Twinkies.

          ... that is, until one eats the other.
  • What this is is an experimental spacecraft that NASA gave up, and should reclaim in my opinion. Turning this into a manned flight precursor would be a good way for President Obama to regain status in the astronaut community.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by icebike (68054)

      I doubt this has anything at all to do with NASA, and NASA is in no position to reclaim anything from military projects.

      This system is built on designs for flight test prototypes developed when the shuttle was being designed, and refined thereafter.

      TFA says: "The official description of the mission talks of demonstrating "a rapid-turnaround airborne test bed." That makes sense, but there is no sign that anyone plans to fly the vehicle ever again" which is pure utter nonsense. You don't build a lander to f

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by mbone (558574)

        Because the X-37 is a NASA program and the X-37b started out as a NASA program.That is why there are pictures of it on Google images.

        Trust me, real secret military spacecraft you learn about 20 years later.

  • by Tekfactory (937086) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:36PM (#32088016) Homepage

    A scaled up version of this could replace capabilities that the shuttle provided to the military.

    Sure they launch sats on rockets now, but they can't do any of the maintenance with a rocket. Also is folks listened to the MIT lectures on building the shuttle, they mentioned that the engines in the shuttle wouldn't have to be torn down and rebuilt between flights if the electronics were built onto the engine such the engines could be tested without removing them.

    I'm sure there are other what if style improvements that the shuttle built from blueprints could benefit from in the age of CAD that would aid in the rapid turnaround of any new vehicle designed with the Twinkie's test data.

    • Also is folks listened to the MIT lectures on building the shuttle, they mentioned that the engines in the shuttle wouldn't have to be torn down and rebuilt between flights if the electronics were built onto the engine such the engines could be tested without removing them.

      That's relevant to the things that electronics can test for. (A very small subset of the things that are tested/inspected on and SSME.) Not to mention that if such things were truly practical (electronics substituting for inspection and/or teardown), commercial aviation would be using it for jet engines.
       
      Not to mention that they haven't removed the engines after every flight for over fifteen years, and haven't rebuilt them every time they're removed for over a decade.
       

      I'm sure there are other what if style improvements that the shuttle built from blueprints could benefit from in the age of CAD that would aid in the rapid turnaround of any new vehicle designed with the Twinkie's test data.

      This vehicle's (single flight) test data is roughly meaningless compared to the thirty years of flight experience for the Shuttle itself. Seriously, the Shuttle's problems don't stem from lack of CAD. CAD is just a fancy version of Microsoft Paint - you still need the engineering information behind the design. Without that information it doesn't matter if you use chisels on stone tablets or the latest engineering workstation.
       
      There lies the key problem with the Shuttle, lack of funding, lack of basic technology research, lack of engineering development, and a healthy helping of excess ambition on the part of NASA and successive Congresses and Administrations. The Shuttle went wrong when those three collectively decided not to expand on the groundwork laid by the X-15 and the various lifting body projects in favor of Buck Rogers stunts.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      >they mentioned that the engines in the shuttle wouldn't have to be torn down and rebuilt between flights if the electronics were built onto the engine such the engines could be tested without removing them.

      Getting into space is about as extreme an environment as any mechanism is likely to face.

      As long as teams in the NHRA have to dissassemble and reassemble their engines bewteen races, NASA will likely have to do the same.

  • by Skyshadow (508) * on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:36PM (#32088024) Homepage

    So the article speculates that this is a testbed for on-orbit threat detection systems, which given the number of countries getting into the space gig seems like a reasonable thing to be working on.

    So here's why bit I don't get: Why build it into a space plane rather than a regular satellite? Seems to me that you're adding an order of magnitude to the complexity of the mission -- do they really need the sensors back that badly, or is this maybe for something else?

    • by Tekfactory (937086) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:43PM (#32088110) Homepage

      Some more speculation from the Register based on the same reasons that the shuttle had such large wings, this gives it cross-range capability to launch and return in a singular polar orbit.

      http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/04/21/x37b_secret_launch_options/ [theregister.co.uk]

      • by Zocalo (252965)
        It's an interesting idea, but I fail to see how they might the slightest chance of maintaining the secrecy element of the single polar orbit mission profile proposed in the article. You are going to have a huge light trail visible across half of Florida whenever they have a launch at Canaveral followed by a flurry of activity at Vandenberg when they recover it afterward, or whichever launch/recovery sites they use. It's hardly going to take much in the way of intelligence smarts to put those two observati
        • by Bakkster (1529253)

          If you always have 1-5 of these guys in the 'air' at any one time, there's your plausible deniability. If the flights are routine enough, it's no longer out of the ordinary to launch a kill vehicle, since it's otherwise identical to the other (non-military or weaponized) launches.

        • by vlm (69642)

          "one of our satellites just went dark" and work out what probably went down.

          Maybe you have the wrong "our". What if one of our broken fancy-sats were going to deorbit over a particularly inconvenient location?

      • by Rich0 (548339) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @02:15PM (#32088562) Homepage

        I'd actually think that something like this would be ideal to TAKE OUT a satellite, or a satellite interceptor.

        A polar orbit means that its relative velocity would be large compared to any less inclined orbit.

        Ability to launch and return in a single polar orbit means that it would be hard to shoot down - it would have to fly right over an enemy launch site to do so since they wouldn't spot it until it was entering their airspace and there would be no time to vector an interception from elsewhere. You only have a few minutes to launch even if you happen to have an ASAT missile right on its flight path (which obviously the US would avoid anyway when they put it into orbit).

        So, the USAF identifies a bunch of satellites they want to shoot down, then they put this thing into orbit which parks interceptors in polar orbits that will hit each of the targets. Then it re-enters and returns to base.

        Another option is recon - this thing could be launched at any inclination to get to any point in the earth quickly and then be able to return to base more quickly with cross-range capability.

        Those are just some wild guesses. Wings do give you options - no sense having them unless your mission demands them.

      • by icebike (68054)

        Single orbit?

        Even the prototype is planned to fly for weeks.

        Payload in orbit with cross range re-entry capability allows for retrieval of payload. Or DELIVERY of payload.

        With a fleet of these, a few would always be within range is to almost any land mass on earth, on less than an hour's notice.

        After all, if you can put the wheels on the hash marks at the end of any runway, you could also but the entire vehicle through any given window of any given building.

    • by God'sDuck (837829) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:50PM (#32088246)

      My logic (against a rival spacefaring nation): If you build it on a satellite, a strategically deployed paint fleck can render you defenseless until you can arrange for another satellite and launcher. Make a satellite maneuverable enough to dodge strategically deployed paint flecks and the fuel requirements may make your satellite huge and/or short lived. Put it on a space plane and you can dodge all you want, and just relaunch as needed if you don't dodge well enough.
       
      My logic (against rogue states): if you build it on a geostationary satellite and guess wrong as to where the next threat is coming from, you now need another satellite. If you build it on a network of satellites, you need the whole bloody network to not have blind spots. If you build it on space planes, you just fly them over whomever is the rogue of the moment.
       
      My logic (against the UN): satellites are subject to international treaties regarding the weaponizing of space. Planes-that-work-like-satellites are less so.

      • My logic (against the UN): satellites are subject to international treaties regarding the weaponizing of space. Planes-that-work-like-satellites are less so.I

        I don't think this is right. The only governing law on this topic (to date WRT the USA) is the Outer Space Treaty, which makes no distinction between planes, satellites, shuttles, etc. The method of carry isn't relevant, only the weaon's location: "stationed in outer space" and "in orbit" are both specifically banned, in addition to the surfaces of hea

      • by caerwyn (38056)

        Strategically deploying paint flecks is a *lot* harder to do than you might think. Unpowered intercepts on the sort of trajectory that would matter for an item that small would require truly amazing knowledge of spacecraft disturbances, not to mention precise knowledge of starting position and velocity.

        Everything is harder in space than people outside the industry like to think it is.

    • by Hadlock (143607) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @02:16PM (#32088578) Homepage Journal

      he craft is supposed to orbit Earth for several weeks, maneuver in orbit, and glide its way to a landing strip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California

      Really this just sounds like a fancier version of the SR-71/U-2 spyplane. Spy satellite are great things and can photograph pretty much anything given a long enough period of time; the problem is they're only going to be over the exact patch of dirt you're interested in perhaps once a week, and it might be cloudy (or night time!) when that happens.
       
      Enter the spy plane. The U-2 and SR-71 (and A-12, but that was discontinued in the 60's) are designed to get "now" pics without having to wait. Call up Bobby Hill AFB in California or Hank Hill AFB in Virginia and in 8 hours you can get an up to date photograph of exactly what's going on anywhere in the world.
       
      Now imagine you combine the two. The availability and speed of a spy plane, but the international benefit of staying out of of your enemy's airspace. Plus, due to the momentum it has, it stays in orbit for weeks, so after you buzz Moscow, you can do a course correction to your flying twinkie and hit up St. Petersburg, Beijing, Pyongyang, or Tehran to see where the weapons shipments are headed. Course corrections cost a lot of fuel for a satellite, which will be in orbit for years or decades, but course correction fuel on a reusable satellite that will only be up for a matter of weeks is cheap.
       
      Also it's a lot harder to hit a new sattelite with an unknown and changing orbit. The chinese have proven that they can knock a U-2 flying at 90,000ft out of the air [google.com].

      • The U-2's you speak of probably weren't at 90k (there was considerable speculation that Francis Gary Powers' altimeter had been tampered with as well), and had had their jamming equipment altered / sabotaged. They didn't just lob a couple of SAM's up and knock them out of the air.

  • I wonder what they’re calling it behind closed doors, though?

  • by Bodhammer (559311) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:42PM (#32088094)
    Black Mesa
  • by JohnMurtari (829882) <jmurtari@thebook.com> on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:44PM (#32088128) Homepage

    This is just conjecture. On a 'big' war day we are going to want to disable enemy satellites. We have ground based interceptors -- but there can be delays in launch windows, plus the 'bad' guys are going to be on guard and can take some evasive actions.

    How about our little X-37 with a cargo bay and manipulator arm goes and pays those 'nasty' satellites a visit right now and attaches a few pounds of high explosive with a radio detonator. When the war starts you push a button and they all disappear!

    Just in case they send a maintenance flight up, our little bomblets can also be equipped with a radio controlled 'spring' that detaches them from the satellite. No one is the wiser.

    Possible?

    • by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:56PM (#32088334) Homepage

      few pounds? a single hand grenade would take out any satellite. Imparting the energy from a single grenade or even a C4 charge will spin it out of control that the bird will never recover from.

      you don't have to destroy it, just make it useless.

    • by Jeng (926980)

      Possible?

      No not really.

      Besides its not like it would need high explosives. Squirting some water on the satellites would cause some interesting damage that would be hard to track down.

      • by Bakkster (1529253)

        Or, more efficiently, a small cloud of undetectable debris, released on a colission course from an alternate orbit to impart a sufficiently large relative velocity. Make the orbit suitably eliptic and any debris that misses would burn up in the atmosphere within several orbits, and you can avoid collateral damage.

      • by kimvette (919543)

        Squirting water in a near-vacuum environment will result in what; either water vapor (instant evaporation) or ice chunks, right?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Or..., attach something that can futz with the function of the bird. Killing it outright certainly removes an asset from enemy hands, but turning that asset can, under certain conditions, be even more valuable.

    • by icebike (68054)

      Why an arm? Too slow.

      Regular gun fire from a nose cannon or radar controlled short range rocket would do as well. Sats are thin skinned vehicles.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      That seems like a stretch of capabilities considering that enemy satellites don't exactly have open, 'insert here,' interfaces on them where you could easily mount something like that. If the X-37 is going to be used for space militarization, I imagine it is much less about blowing things up and far more about interfacing with things on orbit. The X-37 has a decently sized cargo bay and a manipulator arm. It may well be capable of snagging certain classes of enemy satellites for reverse engineering. It als
      • by PitaBred (632671)

        Why would it deploy satellites when it is a satellite itself?

        • Because it may not have a payload attached to it to fulfill it's objectives. It may be cheaper to send a few small satellites up, together, as one bundle, that can be selectively placed on orbit than to send them up separately or with their own orbital maneuvering facilities. Those are just a couple advantages that stem from having a reusable, standard interface for launching. If all you want to do is place a few 5 kg cameras on orbit, there is no sense in bootstrapping a few hundred kgs of maneuvering fue
    • by forkazoo (138186)

      This is just conjecture. On a 'big' war day we are going to want to disable enemy satellites. We have ground based interceptors -- but there can be delays in launch windows, plus the 'bad' guys are going to be on guard and can take some evasive actions.

      How about our little X-37 with a cargo bay and manipulator arm goes and pays those 'nasty' satellites a visit right now and attaches a few pounds of high explosive with a radio detonator. When the war starts you push a button and they all disappear!

      Just in ca

    • No. Delta-v to LEO is between 9.3 and 10 km/s. Orbital velocity at LEO is 7.8 km/s, so to shift from one satellite orbit to another would be almost as expensive as (and possibly more than) sending up a new rocket. I can't imagine the X-37 having a fuel capacity that much in excess of that required to reach LEO. And if that weren't enough to kill ya, the fuel costs of lifting that much more fuel to orbit would be insane (you could go to the moon on that delta-v budget!)
  • I thought that was Lindsey Graham's nick name!
  • by djdbass (1037730) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @01:51PM (#32088258)
    Radar Operator: Colonel, you better have a look at this radar.
    Colonel: What is it, son?
    Radar Operator: I don't know, sir, but it looks like a giant...
    Jet Pilot: Dick. Dick, take a look out of starboard.
    Co-Pilot: Oh my God, it looks like a huge...
    Bird-Watching Woman: Pecker.
    Bird-Watching Man: [raising binoculars] Ooh, Where?
    Bird-Watching Woman: Over there. What sort of bird is that? Wait, it's not a woodpecker, it looks like someone's...
    Army Sergeant: Privates. We have reports of an unidentified flying object. It has a long, smooth shaft, complete with...
    Baseball Umpire: Two balls.
    [looking up from game]
    Baseball Umpire: What is that. It looks just like an enormous...
    Chinese Teacher: Wang. pay attention.
    Wang: I was distracted by that giant flying...
    Musician: Willie.
    Willie: Yeah?
    Musician: What's that?
    Willie: [squints] Well, that looks like a huge...
    Colonel: Johnson.
    Radar Operator: Yes, sir?
    Colonel: Get on the horn to British Intelligence and let them know about this.
  • I question the 'one of the most secretive' part of TFS based on the fact that this is posted on Slashdot. /tinfoilhat
  • Or does 6000 Kg annoy other people? Shouldn't that be 6 Mg?

  • It's obviously Thunderbird 2. You can all leave your geek cards at the door on your way out.

  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @02:48PM (#32089074) Journal

    First off, while the article is a good one, it was actually written before launch. After the launch, there have been some intriguing details, particularly the fact that NOBODY outside of the classified world has been able to actually locate it in the sky. Normally amateur skywatchers are pretty good at locating satellites after they've launched, but apparently not in this case. Here's two possible explanations for this:

    * the X-37B is testing low-visibility features, possibly either a stealthy payload shroud, low-visibility solar panels, or some other sort of camouflage/stealth system
    * One possibility posited by Jim Oberg (the article author) elsewhere is that this may be the first test ever of an atmospheric orbital plane change, a technique desired since the 90s or earlier, where a spaceplane uses its wings to dip into the atmosphere while travelling at hypersonic speeds to alter its trajectory. The X-37B apparently doesn't have a high enough L/D ratio to perform an extreme plane change (e.g. near-equatorial to polar), but it may be able to alter its trajectory enough to make it damn hard to track from the ground.

    Now, some people have been asking why a reusable spaceplane would be useful to the US Air Force. Some possibilities:
    * The atmospheric plane change capability mentioned above, which would allow the Air Force to deploy satellites into trajectories unknown by those observed. One major problem with satellites is that other countries typically know when they'll be overhead, so they just make sure that anything they're trying to hide doesn't occur during those hours.
    * If you add a retrieval arm or some other docking interface, you can potentially use the craft to alter the trajectory of existing satellites
    * Although the X-37B was launched on an expendable Atlas V rocket, the Air Force recently put out a solicitation for proposals [hobbyspace.com] for a first-stage Reusable Booster System utilizing a technique known as boost-back. With boost-back, after the booster boosts the payload and/or 2nd stage, it then does a 180 and boosts/glides back to a landing strip so that it can be easily reused. Lockheed Martin tested a secretive prototype of such a system (which they dubbed "Revolver") a couple years ago. If you combine such Reusable Boosters with a beefier successor to the X-37B, you have a rapid-launch reusable "surge" capability long desired by the Air Force. Such a surge capability could be useful when you need to quickly launch many satellites, such as when you need to deploy many satellites over a particular region in wartime or many of your satellites are knocked out by anti-satellite weapons or solar storms. Currently the Air Force has to wait for several weeks or months per satellite.

    For anybody interested in watching video of the launch (a rather beautiful launch of the Atlas V rocket), you can find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdCpuv9RCwE [youtube.com]

    Also, for those who are interested in finding out more, there's a lot of good discussion with plenty of current and former space professionals (including some posts by Jim Oberg, the author of the submission article) over at this NASASpaceFlight.com thread on the X-37B: http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=21122.285 [nasaspaceflight.com]

  • One of the most secretive US Air Force spaceflights in decades

    wow I wonder if 1 billion of /.ers can keep a secret...besides we don't have any friends to tell, do we?

  • by Max Threshold (540114) on Tuesday May 04, 2010 @04:38PM (#32090588)
    The reason the shuttle is strapped onto the side of its launch stack is because it carries its payload internally. There are only two justifications for the engineering difficulties and operational hazards of this design. One is to have the expensive SSMEs attached to a recoverable part of the vehicle. The other is to give the vehicle the ability to recover payloads from orbit (read: steal enemy spy satellites.) With the end of the shuttle program looming, I'm guessing the Air Force is interested in maintaining that capability. And who knows... maybe they'll be nice and bring back Hubble, too.

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