Become a fan of Slashdot on Facebook

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Space The Military Science Technology

After a Year In Orbit, US Air Force's X37-B Will Conclude Its Secret Mission 243

Posted by timothy
from the and-boy-is-it-tired dept.
SomePgmr writes "The U.S Air Force's highly secret unmanned space plane will land in June — ending a year-long mission in orbit. The experimental Boeing X37-B has been circling Earth at 17,000 miles per hour and was due to land in California in December. It is now expected to land in mid to late June. And still, no one knows what the space drone has been doing up there all this time."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

After a Year In Orbit, US Air Force's X37-B Will Conclude Its Secret Mission

Comments Filter:
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:13AM (#40218983)

    ...I'm guessing most here will believe that its mission was one of unmitigated evil.

    It's probably designed to shred the Constitution — from space!

  • If this secret spy drone is rocking, don't come a knocking...

    Or maybe the 2000km high club

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:14AM (#40218995)

    Not even the people who launched it?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:21AM (#40219065)

      Welcome to the world of military intelligence...

    • Maybe people didn't launch it? It could have built itself in an automated factory. Skynet has reached for the sky!

    • by ISoldat53 (977164)
      The engineer with the recall codes was on sabbatical.
    • by Talderas (1212466) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @10:41AM (#40220073)

      I have a suspicion. It's a simple one too.

      This is a drone that is designed to land. When a craft exits orbit and enters our atmosphere there have been three three styles of entries. There are those which burn up. There are those like the Soyuz, Dragon, and Apollo capsules. There was a space shuttle. The drone is obviously meant to reenter like the space shuttle in some fashion.

      One thing that has been desirable has been to keep surveillance drones in flight for as long as possible. The longest shuttle mission was 17 days and 15 hours. This drone has been up there for a year before coming down.

      The Chinese have demonstrated that they have the ability to shoot down satellites so a drone spy satellite that has good maneuverability in orbit would be a plus.

      I think they're aiming to replace spy satellites with these drones and this was a test to see if a drone can stay up in space for a long duration and still arrive back on ground intact for repairs or to upgrade its system.

      • by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @01:04PM (#40222345)

        I think they're aiming to replace spy satellites with these drones and this was a test to see if a drone can stay up in space for a long duration and still arrive back on ground intact for repairs or to upgrade its system.

        That's exactly what I think. Whatever is onboard the ship is almost irrelevant at this point, the cargo is a red herring (and it can change). The impressive capability of the ship, the "new thing" that it brings to the table, is that it is essentially a multi-purpose satellite that can return to earth and be launched again. Like you said, returning to earth would allow people to refuel, repair, offload whatever it collected in space, or upgrade it. If you have a refuelable satellite then you can afford to be less frugal with the maneuvering thrusters, meaning you can avoid anti-satellite weapons more effectively and move to different orbits. The one vehicle can support many missions, it could go up with optical equipment and do some surveillance, land again and get a new electronics package for a different mission, land again and get a weapons package. This is probably why the NRO just gave NASA two spy satellites. They don't need single-purpose satellites any more when they have one that they can land and upgrade.

      • by Chris Burke (6130) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @04:05PM (#40225133) Homepage

        One thing that has been desirable has been to keep surveillance drones in flight for as long as possible. The longest shuttle mission was 17 days and 15 hours. This drone has been up there for a year before coming down.

        Yeah, because it was essentially a satellite in orbit around the earth. We already have spy satellites, and have had them for a lot longer than we have had drones.

        The reason why we're using a lot of drones now, despite already having satellites, is because the drones can maintain a lengthy continuous presence over a specific location, rather than passing over that location at regular intervals in an orbit which can be discovered and then worked around. In terms of amount of time continuously observing an area of interest, this space plane has vastly lower numbers than any UAV -- just like all spy satellites.

        If you are picturing this being used for surveillance, then what they showed is not a drone with an extremely long loiter time. It's a satellite with an extremely short orbital life span.

        I think they're aiming to replace spy satellites with these drones and this was a test to see if a drone can stay up in space for a long duration and still arrive back on ground intact for repairs or to upgrade its system.

        If the military has upgraded equipment they want to put in a spy satellite, they just launch a new one. They have no need to recover old ones (unlike back in the day when spy satellites used film), so they just let the old one deorbit.

        To figure out what the X37 is for, we need to figure out why the military would need it back. Spy satellite doesn't fit the bill at all.

  • Actually (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Someone probably knows, I'd bet several people. Just not yet us.

  • by UnknowingFool (672806) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:22AM (#40219073)
    Considering the huge number of satellites and space debris, I'm going to say that it was just stuck in traffic all year. Space rush hour really sucks!
  • Fast (Score:2, Funny)

    by Lord Lode (1290856)

    17,000 miles per hour, I guess that's something like 30,000 km/h? That seems pretty fast to me. How much fuel did that consume, and how did they provide it with fuel for a whole year?

    • Re:Fast (Score:5, Funny)

      by cnettel (836611) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:29AM (#40219141)
      In other news, Aristotle is suing you for infringing his intellectural property rights on fictional physics. Maintaining speed relative to another object does not, generally, require any continuous supply of additional energy. Free fall elliptical orbits are one example.
      • by Matheus (586080)

        Oh be nice... that 7-figure UID can be a heavy burden to bear sometimes!

        In other news: Positioning engines for course corrections due to space debris, other satellites and getting a better view of yo momma's house require plenty of energy so albeit a bit mis-guided his question is not completely without merit.

        • by cnettel (836611)
          Well, we don't know the mission. If it was imaging that would of course take quite a bit of attitude control thrusters. Space debris is seriously overstated as a general problem in most orbits. The risk is real, but the cases where the debris has a well-enough known orbit that you can currently do anything about it are few, except for in a few specific bands.
        • by PFactor (135319)
          Huh?
    • I am not sure if you are being sarcastic, so if you are, I apologize.

      If it is orbiting at 17,000 mph, the only fuel it would need after it is in that orbit is for course corrections and landing and possibly to correct for any drag.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Lord Lode (1290856)

        Oh, looks like I missed the "SPACE plane" part in the article description. I was thinking about flying through air.

      • by Muad'Dave (255648)

        This object has been followed on the seesat-l list, and IIRC from the observations there it did perform a good number of orbital maneuvers, including the possibly fuel-intensive plane change. This required more than needed for mere station-keeping.

        Otherwise, you're of course correct.

    • by GodInHell (258915)

      how did they provide it with fuel for a whole year?

      From TFA

      The 29-foot, solar-powered craft had an original mission of 270 days.

      The Air Force said the second mission was to further test the technology but the ultimate purpose has largely remained a mystery.

      So -- I'm guessing solar power. Also, the folks in the picture are wearing hazmat uniforms and carrying what appears to be a geiger counter, so maybe nuke as well.

      • Re:Fast (Score:5, Insightful)

        by pezpunk (205653) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:56AM (#40219507) Homepage

        nah, the geiger counter is no indication of radioactive material / nukes on board. You see, it turns out, most of the visible objects in outer space are actually humongous balls of radiation-emiting nuclear plasma. spacecraft are routinely dusted by bits of nuclear material. it's also possible (at least theoretically) for atoms bombarded by radiation to transmute into radioactive isotopes themselves. it's probably a good idea to wear a hazmat suit when approaching any spacecraft recently returned from long periods away from atmoshperic shielding.

        • by ceoyoyo (59147)

          "it's also possible (at least theoretically) for atoms bombarded by radiation to transmute into radioactive isotopes themselves."

          It's a little more than theoretically possible. If you've got an older smoke detector or have ever had a PET scan, you've taken advantage of transmutation to a radioactive isotope.

      • Re:Fast (Score:4, Interesting)

        by ColdWetDog (752185) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @12:57PM (#40222233) Homepage

        The hazmat suites are for hydrazine. Nasty stuff.

        If you've ever watched a Shuttle landing to the point where they're letting the crew out, the first people to arrive are the fire trucks, then folks in Hazmat suites to make sure that there is no unreacted hydrazine (from the Reaction Control System) leaking around. It's very, very volatile. The XB-37 Wikipedia article describes shifting the main engine off the hydrogen perioxide (which at the concentrations used is pretty nasty stuff in and of itself) but they may still have hydrazine for the control thrusters.

        Besides, they look cool and let you know that the Air Force means business.

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      it was orbiting. how much fuel does the moon need to burn?

      the point is that usa military has something that can go to orbit, stay there for a year and come back.

    • by Tyr07 (2300912)

      Orbit - no air - way, way less friction. There's some minor drag probably unless it was a very high orbit. It consumes no fuel except for minor corrections
        as needed.

      Why? Technically it's constantly falling, it's just moving forward to fast and keeps missing the earth. So, yea, does not require
      fuel to maintain speed, only to increase or decrease it.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      It used wind power, obviously.

    • by Gilmoure (18428)

      Some guy named Newton wants to have a few words with you.

    • Re:Fast (Score:5, Funny)

      by camperdave (969942) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:46AM (#40219391) Journal

      17,000 miles per hour, I guess that's something like 30,000 km/h? That seems pretty fast to me. How much fuel did that consume, and how did they provide it with fuel for a whole year?

      Travelling through orbital space ain't like dusting crops, boy! It doesn't take any fuel at all. Look at the Moon, for example. It's been in orbit an awfully long time, but how long has it been since it was fuelled up?

    • Re:Fast (Score:4, Informative)

      by Hadlock (143607) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:53AM (#40219471) Homepage Journal

      It consumed roughtly 737,400lbs of fuel, minus the weight of the Atlas V rocket (so 500,000 lbs of fuel?) to get it in orbit. To orbit the earth at an altitude above the non-negligible atmosphere, you need to travel at around 17,000mph or more. This is roughly the same speed the Shuttle, ISS, Dragon capsule, Hubble, et all are moving. The rocket puts it in orbit at that speed. I think once in orbit, about 6 months in to it's mission, it did an orbital course correction, which if done at the correct time, requires surprisingly little fuel to do.

      • It consumed roughtly 737,400lbs of fuel, minus the weight of the Atlas V rocket (so 500,000 lbs of fuel?)

        Way more than that. The fuel fraction of a rocket has to be on the order of 90% to have a useful payload.

    • by tomhath (637240)
      Not only going fast, but accelerating the entire time!
  • Whats better than having nukes on the ground, then having them in space, easily deploy-able at the push of a button (and a 20 second delay), to wipe out enemies. secret missions could have hundreds of these orbiting the globe with armed warheads for years with none the wiser.

    or

    the could be part of an missile intercept program to take down ICMB's...

    or

    they just wanted to get free Pay Per View.

    • Nukes in space has been possible for 50 years. We don't do it because there are treaties against it, treaties that have remarkably been followed by all involved. It's not a a boat that anyone involved really wants to start rocking.

      • by edremy (36408) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @10:19AM (#40219845) Journal

        Nukes in space has been possible for 50 years. We don't do it because there are treaties against it, treaties that have remarkably been followed by all involved. It's not a a boat that anyone involved really wants to start rocking.

        It's not so much that there has been any great restraint on the part of the nuclear armed space powers as that there is no point to having them in orbit. ICBMs get anywhere in the world in 30 minutes, SLBMs are even quicker since they are closer. Silos are very well hardened and subs are hard to find- orbiting satellites have limited maneuverability, so you always know where the warhead is. A good chunk of the time orbital dynamics is going to say you're out of position to even hit your desired target. Plus, stuff in space can't be maintained easily and warheads need occasional maintenance to do things like replace the tritium boosters and check the electronics.

        It's basically just not necessary

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          It's not so much that there has been any great restraint on the part of the nuclear armed space powers as that there is no point to having them in orbit. ICBMs get anywhere in the world in 30 minutes

          AHA! This is the meat of the matter. The countries actually capable of deploying an ICBM (or a missile sub) don't need nukes in space — we have ICBMs. The other countries can't get out from under our thumbs sufficiently to put nukes in space; if they could put a nuke in space, they could build an ICBM.

  • Secret? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RivenAleem (1590553) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:33AM (#40219207)

    How secret can it be if we know it happened? What we really have to worry/consider are the things that we never even know happen, not just "don't know their purpose."

    If the general community know that this 'secret' spaceplane was up there doing stuff, then you can guarantee that it wasn't doing anything sensitive, though possibly classified. When they do really important and secret things, you can guarantee that we never even know it happened at all.

    • by jank1887 (815982)

      "...guarantee that it wasn't doing anything sensitive, though possibly classified... "

      you just might not quite understand the meaning of classified.

      • I think he does.
        Classified, means just that classified.
        It may be classified noforn in which case only US citizens may see the whatever it is.
        It may be classified secret, or top secret, or TS<codeword>.
        In all the above cases it is also sensitive.
        It could also be classified as unrestricted (like NASA pictures of the deep cosmos), still classified, but not sensitive.

        There is material that is born secret, and there is material that is classified secret, but classification is just that, putting the materia

        • No, it's not. In this context, "classified" is not the same thing as the generic English word classified, "to put something in a class." In the context of US Government vernacular, classified means FOUO, secret, or above. It is NOT to be disseminated and explicitly carries with it the idea that leaking it will cause harm to someone or something relating to the USA.

        • by Matheus (586080)

          Ah but you're missing the fact that in the ops world Sensitive has its own meaning.

          i work on machines all the time that are labeled quite clearly "Sensitive But Unclassified". It would seem by your definition those machines (or more importantly their contents) had been Classified 'Sensitive' BUT the words tell you quite the opposite. Feel free to explode in a cloud of logic now...

          By at least the 3-letter acronyms that I work for anything that has been "Classified" is above the level of "Sensitive", "Sensi

    • by robot256 (1635039)
      Maybe the purpose of the mission is precisely to make the general community wonder what it is doing up there? To provide an environment for rumors and propaganda about our capabilities designed to scare our enemies? Not really too far-fetched. Besides, it's pretty difficult to hide something in orbit from the millions of amateur astronomers on the Internet, so better to let out the story that is is NOT a nuclear warhead than let the speculations get too carried away. Beyond that, what it's doing is stil
      • by mikael (484)

        They tried keeping spy satellites secret in the past. Unfortunately, solar panels and Summer evenings are a bit of a giveaway. Once somebody sees that flash of light, next thing they are taking out their telescope, camera and taking photographs.

    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      How secret can it be if we know it happened?

      1. It's really hard to hide a rocket launch.

      2. Amateur astronomers like to make a game out of "spot the spy satellite"
      The price of technology is coming down and the processing power of computers has going up.
      More than enough to allow the hobbyist to spot "secret" satellites.

      Give it another generation and the words "secret satellite" will no longer be used together.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Looking at it doesn't mean you know what it does.

        • by Patch86 (1465427)

          There are only a very limited number of things that a satellite can do:
          1) Look up at the sky
          2) Look down at the ground
          3) Relay data
          4) Come back down again (i.e., as a weapon, perhaps with a warhead)

          Seeing as that first category is pretty innocent and will most likely be non-secret (science is for bragging rights as much as anything else), that only really leaves three varieties of sinister purpose. It's also probably pretty much a given that every space-faring government does items 2 & 3 in large quanti

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            5) drop something, like a crowbar
            6) fire a directed energy weapon at another satellite
            7) maneuver and rendezvous with another orbiting body
            8) detonate and spread debris throughout orbit

            I bet there's a few hundred possibilities I'm missing, but doubling the length of your list without even getting fanciful (like directed energy weapon pointed at the ground, or orbital mind control lasers or something) was trivial.

    • Re:Secret? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by pezpunk (205653) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @10:04AM (#40219615) Homepage

      it's in the DoD's best interest for people to believe they are in posession of secret and unimaginable technological wonders. I think it's highly dubious (and optimistic, in my experience in this industry) to subscribe to the (conveniently non-falsifiable) notion that the U.S. military keeps all their most impressive toys 100% hidden from view. in fact, i suspect the opposite is closer to the truth.

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        "conveniently non-falsifiable"

        The secret stuff generally gets declassified, so the hypothesis is not non-falsifiable. In fact, it's easily testable. Just look back thirty years at what was commonly available, what the government was thought to be up to, and what they actually had. It turns out they probably didn't have magic UFO technology, but they did have things like stealth that were quite a bit beyond what was commonly available. Extrapolating, the US military probably has some interesting capabili

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        It's been 35 years since I got out of the USAF, and there were things about the SR-71 that are still secret, and rightly so. Stuff that will make your skin crawl. God only knows what they have now.

        No, I'm not going to describe the stuff to you. You wouldn't believe it anyway.

    • by six025 (714064)

      What we really have to worry/consider are the things that we never even know happen, not just "don't know their purpose."

      Obligatory Rumsfeld quote:

      [T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
      We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
      But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.

      Just how far are you willing to take the paranoia?

      Peace,
      Andy.

      • by foobsr (693224)

        Just how far are you willing to take the paranoia?

        Lem gives you levels to choose from.

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

        CC.

    • by Kjella (173770)

      That's just stupid, space is empty. It's about as hard to hide a spacecraft as it is to hide a supercarrier, it's not that it's there which is a secret but what it can do. The military isn't ostrich stupid, they don't stick their head in the sand and pretend nobody else can see it either. Just like you can't hide a nuclear detonation anymore, anything that doesn't happen in a simulator will get picked up by seismographs. And yes, they register different than earthquakes.

    • How secret can it be if we know it happened?

      Just because you know that a spy exists and is doing something does not mean that you know what they are doing. That's how it can still be secret and why it still is secret. Yes, we know it's up there, but we have no idea what it's actually doing while it's up there.

    • by Sloppy (14984)

      How secret can it be if we know it happened?

      Was the Manhattan Project secret?

      Those people in Los Alamos and Oak Ridge are doing something. Are they related? What are they doing?

      There was a bright flash somewhere in White Sands. How did they do it? Did it have something to do with Los Alamos?

      Something spectacularly bad just happened at Hiroshima. What was it, and how did they do it?

      X37-B is landing. What was it doing? And if you ever find out what it was doing, will you know how they did it?

    • What we really have to worry/consider are the things that we never even know happen, not just "don't know their purpose."

      I think people have better things to do than worry about the infinite number of possibilities that "things that we never even know happen" implies.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    From the Article......

    "At launch, the space plane was accompanied by staff in biohazard suits, leading to speculation that there were radioactive components on board. "

    Why cant journalists that actually have an education in science cover science subjects?

    Really? a BIOHAZARD suit for RADIOACTIVE protection?

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by robot256 (1635039)
      They were only wearing a biohazard suit because the sponsoring congresscritter was on hand for the occasion.
    • by Yvan256 (722131)

      Maybe they launched The Hulk into space. Or the Fantastic Four. Etc, etc.

    • by PPH (736903)

      Because the last time photos of technicians working on a spacecraft, wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops was leaked, Congress thought they weren't taking their job seriously and threatened to cut funding.

      Same reason aircraft carrier crews paint over the mini golf course on the deck before returning to port.

    • Really? a BIOHAZARD suit for RADIOACTIVE protection?

      While you jab at journalists is certainly reasonable, you don't sound all that smart yourself.

      Yes, people wear hazmat-type suits for nucular stuff all the time. Look at all the Fukashima pictures. The reason for that is that alpha particles are often attached to dusts and other floaty particles and one should avoid internalizing them. While you could potentially deal with that with just a gas mask (breathing being the most likely route) it's typically felt that swathing the person in Tyvek or whatnot is

  • Biohazard suits.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Knightman (142928) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:38AM (#40219279)

    Funny comment in the article: "At launch, the space plane was accompanied by staff in biohazard suits, leading to speculation that there were radioactive components on board."

    I'd wear protective suits if it is fueled with hypergolic propellant since it's extremely toxic, so the comment about radioactive components is just bs IMHO.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:48AM (#40219417)
    I talked to someone who saw the Dream Chaser [wikipedia.org] space plane undergoing air tests north of Boulder. Its one of four private manned vehicles in first-round development funded by NASA. I hear its supposed to be drop-tested from SpaceShipTwo later this year.
  • by Tyrannicsupremacy (1354431) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 @09:52AM (#40219455)

    Not even the air force, or DARPA, or the NSA.

    Government Spokesperson:
    "It just kinda launched itself and seemed to be having a good time up there so we let it be."

  • The US military has had an open goal of expanding its capabilities to kill targets selectively with as little delay as possible. All the gadgetry to achieve real-time eyes-on intelligence on a potential target (like the late UBL) can be worthless if it takes an hour or more to mobilize a strike against it and the target slips away. Having a potential weapons platform already up in the air 24/7 for a year at a time can cut the response time significantly. And if you are hindered by the fixed orbit, like spy

    • by robot256 (1635039)

      My guess is the whole point of the space-plane is that it can easily land, refuel, reload, and get back in orbit. Therefore they can afford to have a larger fuel reserve for orbital maneuvers and you need fewer total craft in the sky to have strike-anywhere capability. Satellites could afford much more maneuvers if they were only expected to stay up for a year at a time rather than the decade(s) that many do now.

      Actually, the biggest reason for being able to maneuver on orbit is stealth. It is much hard

Our business is run on trust. We trust you will pay in advance.

Working...