Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Space The Military

Air Force Sends Mystery Mini-Shuttle Back To Space 123

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-doing-anything-suspicious-no-sirree dept.
dsinc sends this quote from an AP report about the U.S. Air Force's X-37B spaceplane: "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 old space 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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Air Force Sends Mystery Mini-Shuttle Back To Space

Comments Filter:
  • by linatux (63153) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:40PM (#42254425)

    Must be over-due for a good conspiracy theory

    • by Nyder (754090) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:52PM (#42254515) Journal

      Must be over-due for a good conspiracy theory

      It's not a conspiracy till Jesse Ventura investigates it.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_Theory_with_Jesse_Ventura [wikipedia.org]

    • by mcrbids (148650) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:53PM (#42254531) Journal

      Conspiracy or no, the Air Force did what NASA could not: demonstrate a PRACTICAL, reusable space plane.

      NASA had a "designed by committee" project that threw in everything including redundant kitchen sinks and ended up with a bloated whale of a project that was highly impractical and utterly a failure at what it was intended to do: reduce costs. Instead what we got was something designed by committees of non experts that ended up with something like Homer Simpson's badly designed car [onscreencars.com] that has been an utter failure in the marketplace.

      This is a classic White Elephant [wikipedia.org] development that simultaneously bankrupted NASA while disabling the development of any more feasible technologies. So we're stuck with it while NASA tries to regroup and come up with a strategy that doesn't suck.

      Meanwhile, belief in NASA's proficiency is at an all time low, so even though they are, in fact, doing some really cool stuff, the fact is that the worlds wealthiest nation has one of the world's least useful space programs.

      So the USAF built their own. Is anybody surprised?

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        How do we know that?

        As far as we know this is a totally new craft at every launch.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        One reuse so far, and it's unmanned. It's a bit much to compare that to what NASA wants, which is a manned craft, that's definitely reusable more times. (The X-37B might be, it's just too early to say. It hasn't even landed after the first reuse yet.)

        • by kimvette (919543)

          It should be easier to make the X-37B more reusable. Because the entire airframe doesn't have to be pressurized for the duration of each flight, the airframe should last a hell of a lot longer before metal fatigue sets in.

        • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

          The Russian Buran was much more re-usable and was tested for human flight, although budget cuts eventually killed it. They learned from NASA's mistakes of course.

      • by Hythlodaeus (411441) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:04PM (#42254623)

        X-37 is a NASA design. The Air Force rescued it when NASA couldn't find the money to keep it going.

      • by Jeng (926980) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:05PM (#42254625)

        NASA had a "designed by committee" project that threw in everything including redundant kitchen sinks and ended up with a bloated whale of a project that was highly impractical and utterly a failure at what it was intended to do: reduce costs.

        The worst features of the Space Shuttle were put there for possible military missions, but the military looked at the final product and basically said "What were we thinking?", and continued to use rockets.

        • by peragrin (659227) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:24PM (#42254771)

          no the worst features of the shuttle was putting the main engines on the the shuttle instead of on a primary booster like the Buran.

          That created a lot of complicated parts that took way to much time to maintain between launches. All three main engines in each shuttle required a complete disassembly between launches. Not to mention the weight.

          The Buran flew like the x-37 flies now. pushed up by something else and then using thrusters in orbit.
          Indeed the X-37 is being studied by boeing for a 200% scale version for manned version as flying down from orbit is safer than parachute landing.

          • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @08:27PM (#42255735)

            no the worst features of the shuttle was putting the main engines on the the shuttle instead of on a primary booster

            The worst feature of the shuttle was trying to make it carry both people and cargo. That is like trying to make an airplane do the job of both a F-16 and a C-130. It is not going to do either very well. We should have designed a cheap unmanned heavy lift vehicle that was 99% reliable, and a much smaller "space-plane" to carry people that was 99.99% reliable. Instead we built a really expensive manned heavy lift vehicle that was ~98% reliable (135 launches, 2 failures).

            • by xmundt (415364)

              Greetings and Salutations;
              About the probabilities of failure of the Shuttle...If you read Feynman's book (I think it was in "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman", he talks about the Challenger disaster. He was on the committee investigating the incident, and, made a couple of very telling observations. First off, he noted that in the process of communicating the shuttle's viability for safe launch under the conditions at the Cape that day, it seems that every lev

          • I disagree regarding the main engines. The SSME Block II engines required a lot less maintenance than previous engines did. Most of the cost was in the solid rocket boosters, drop tank, hypergolic OMS/RCS and TPS maintenance.
          • by tiqui (1024021) on Wednesday December 12, 2012 @02:40AM (#42257721)

            The shuttle rode on the side of the stack for a reason - so it could use it's three main engines for the entire climb to orbit. These engines were designed to be the best rocket engines ever developed (which meant they'd be very complex and expensive) and, therefore, to be re-usable. They were on the back of the orbiter not as an error, but precisely because that meant they would come home for re-use instead of being thrown-away on each flight. What you seem to think was a mistake, was in fact a design feature and part of the argument for making the scheme both technically and financially workable. As long as going to space requires throwing away most of the vehicle, it will remain the exclusive domain of governments and rich businesses/businessmen. Nobody but the super rich could afford to fly from NY to LA if the entire airliner was discarded during the flight and the passenger parachuted onto the LA runway in a small escape pod.

            In actual practice, nothing about the shuttle system turned out to be as cheap as initially intended; that rarely happens on the first-generation of any world-leading technology. Had we built a 2nd generation of shuttles they likely would have performed far better with lower turn-around times and costs.

          • by roedb (827312)
            "Indeed the X-37 is being studied by boeing" Didn't Boeing build it?
        • by LWATCDR (28044) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:32PM (#42254821) Homepage Journal

          Yes but not exactly the way you think it happened. NASA wanted a smaller shuttle to well shuttle astronauts and supplies to a space station. NASA also wanted in improved Saturn V "The uprated F1a was already in testing" as well. Congress said no you can have which ever is cheaper.
          Congress also wanted it to do all the military launches so they had to put big spy sats into polar orbits. Without military support no shuttle. NASA was fighting for their lives at the time.

          We can put a man on the moon but we can not "fill in your social cause or pet project here"!
          Well we can't put men on the moon anymore! Happy now!

        • by bobbied (2522392)

          The worst features of the Space Shuttle were put there for possible military missions, but the military looked at the final product and basically said "What were we thinking?", and continued to use rockets.

          Not exactly true. Shuttle missions where partially funded by USAF projects on a number of occasions, and I recall at least one "classified" shuttle mission.

        • The worst features of the Space Shuttle were put there for possible military missions

          That's the urban legend version of the story... In reality, NASA was already studying most of those features (notably the double delta wing and it's enhanced crossrange capability) and seriously considering incorporating them because of the enhanced safety (more abort options, more landing opportunities) and greatly increased operational flexibility (more landing opportunistic) that they provided. Contrary to popular bel

        • First, the shuttle was not a camel designed by committee, nor was it a bloated whale. In actual use, it ended-up being far cheaper to operate than the old Saturns it replaced (NASA has finally run and published the numbers now that the program is over) it just never came close to the goals that were set for it.

          NASA spent years studying many different shuttle system designs and took designs and bids from Grumman, Lockheed, Boeing, Rockwell, McDonnell Douglas, etc and compared many of these designs not just o

      • demonstrate a PRACTICAL, reusable space plane.

        I think you mean a practical, reusable space plane that has never been man rated and never will be. That requires a whole other level of engineering, testing, reviewing, and documentation.

        • by khallow (566160)

          I think you mean a practical, reusable space plane that has never been man rated and never will be.

          At least, it's practical. That puts it above the Shuttle which also has never been man rated and never will be.

        • by timeOday (582209)
          I am curious of what is the point of an unmanned space plane? There's nobody on it, so why make the return trip? The ability to fly down must compromise the design for everything else to some degree.
          • by gadget junkie (618542) <gbponz@libero.it> on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @08:09PM (#42255609) Journal

            I am curious of what is the point of an unmanned space plane? There's nobody on it, so why make the return trip? The ability to fly down must compromise the design for everything else to some degree.

            It might just be that the RESULTS from the sensors are so far ahead of the curve, that the DoD doesn't want to broadcast them in any shape or form. Or, security of military channel data have been compromised to some degree. Or, just a message to the Chinese, who have tested antisatellite weapons in the past [wikipedia.org], that their "dark period" in that case is not measured in weeks, even if they disrupt communications between the satellites and earth.
            It might be like the B2 Spirit [wikipedia.org]: there might be only 20 of them, but if your bosses control a country spanning 5 time zones and want an early warning system capable of defeating it, start to print money now. Because you do not have enough of it.

            • by timeOday (582209)
              Interesting ideas. I suppose the security of this "downlink" (flying the data back to the earth) is very good, but the latency is killer - the previous mission was over a year long! And I don't see how this would reduce the blackout period after an anti-satellite attack.
              • it might be that the security is good NOW, but that this results are good enough that they do not want to risk decryption in a distant future..I recall a slashdot discussion about Key cryptoanalysis which was in a way scary, about how good new rigs using video cards are.
                • by timeOday (582209)
                  I don't think the ability to brute force 6-character passwords once you have a local copy of the hashes has any significance to satellite security. A thousand-fold increase in key cracking speed only strips about 10 bits from the 2048 or 4096 (or who knows how many?) bit encryption they would be using. They could launch those things with terabytes of shared keys if they felt the need.
            • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

              Not sure how launching these things would help if the Chinese started shooting down satellites. Missiles are much cheaper than spaceplanes and the Chines have lots of them.

            • Another scenario is they could be doing testing on new sensors and systems for future satellites. Previously they would have had to develop everything on the ground then launch it and hope it worked as expected. If it didn't they had to troubleshoot, and if possible fix, the failures remotely. Seems like a platform where you can bring it all back down after letting it operate, or fail as the case maybe, during a test period would make development a lot easier. Since after you bring it down you can look ove
            • by crakbone (860662)
              I would think it is bringing stuff back. Other countries failed satellites would bring a great deal of data about them as well as ones that "failed" while in orbit. For example lets say North Korea sent a satellite up into orbit. You could send your vehicle up, get a look at it. jam the communications and make it look like a failure and bring the thing back to earth. Even leave a dummy to give a radar return. From that point your scientists could give you some pretty real data on the technology deve
          • by tibman (623933)

            Imagine spy satellites that can return to earth for an upgrade when new tech is available : )

          • The USAF has dreamed of a small space plane like this for decades. They tried to build one in the early sixties (X-20 DynaSoar, with a crew of one) and were actually quite close to flying before MacNamera (yeah, Mr. Vietnam, himself) killed it to spend the money some place else. You are free to guess where he needed more money. Neil Armstrong actually flew the launch abort tests for the X-20 in a modified aircraft at Edwards long before he transferred to NASA and the Gemini and Apollo programs. It must have

          • by cusco (717999)
            Nukes that can be quickly de-orbited, don't follow a standard ballistic missile track, and which can be directed.off a predictable re-entry path to its target.
      • by bobbied (2522392) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:29PM (#42254809)

        Conspiracy or no, the Air Force did what NASA could not: demonstrate a PRACTICAL, reusable space plane.

        NASA had a "designed by committee" project that threw in everything including redundant kitchen sinks and ended up with a bloated whale of a project that was highly impractical and utterly a failure at what it was intended to do: reduce costs. Instead what we got was something designed by committees

        The Shuttle was a MANNED vehicle while the USAF's is NOT manned. Having a crew requires significant amount of equipment and weight to provide the minimum of life support (power, air, light, cooling, food, waste processing etc) which is not required by the USAF's unmanned drone. Further, it's been a couple of decades since the shuttle was designed and technology has advanced, getting smaller, lighter, and less power hungry. I am not surprised that an unmanned vehicle is smaller, cheaper, and more mission capable all things being equal. But they are not equal..

        Comparing the current state of the art and complaining that what we fielded 30 years ago was a waste is not valid. Yes, the Shuttle did not meet the cost per launch targets, but I don't think the shuttle program was a total waste of time or money because of that. And the USAF's unnamed drone is 30 years more advanced in technology which was partially developed through what we learned though the shuttle program.

        If anything surprises me is that it took so long for the USAF to figure out they needed a reusable platform of their own, but even that is understandable when you remember they used the shuttle for some classified work when it was available. This is just the natural progression of things.

        • The next generation X-37, the X-37C, is expected to be scaled up by 165%-180%, with the expectation of having a crew habitation unit (likely a modular unit that can be swapped in and out as needed.)

        • by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @08:43PM (#42255865)

          Comparing the current state of the art and complaining that what we fielded 30 years ago was a waste is not valid.

          Perhaps, but NASA has had major managment issues from the start. Go read Appendix D of the Challenger Disaster report, by one Mr. Feynman, who had to fight tooth and nail to expose the institutional problems that led to the problem. It's since become a case study in how not to manage a project and is required reading in several prominent engineering companies. The design of the shuttle engines, while amazing pieces of technology, were not built according to best practices -- it was literally put together as a whole system and then tested as a completed unit rather than integrating each subsystem after extensive testing and comparison with expected baseline. Debugging the damn thing was exceptionally problematic and to this day it's still not known if all the possible failure modes and bugs have been found and documented. Management showed a long pattern of decreasing safety standards and bypassing procedural safeguards to maintain their image as "cutting edge".

          NASA still suffers from those problems today, and private contractors and now the USAF have proven that the technology is actually not all that sophisticated nor requiring the massive administrative overhead that is so typical of NASA missions and daily operations. They've done it faster, better, and cheaper than NASA did, and their success lies not in copying existing technology, or inventing new technology, but in having good project management skills and not letting committee thinking and politics mangle and derail the whole thing, leading to massive cost overruns.

          • by bobbied (2522392)

            NASA failings are well known and documented. They took a risk management approach, and made some serious mistakes in the process, but they also succeeded in getting the shuttle into space and back over 100 times albeit with two accidents and at a cost that was many times the original estimates. This kind of thing is a prime example of why government is not usually a good place for efficiency. But that issue is not what I was replying to.

            As a technology, the Shuttle was very cutting edge for its day. Gettin

      • How likely is it that the x37b gleaned no information from the space shuttle's development and use?
        very unlikely indeed.
        How likely is it the x37b is able to take advantage of advances in technology and materials made since the early 80s/late 70s?
        almost certain
        How much easier is it to build something not designed to carry humans?
        a great deal easier

        They got learn from people preceding them, and got to do the job with better tools, and had an easier job to do.

        Your unthinking post is there to reinforce your ow

      • by andydread (758754)
        WOW! You do know that Boeing is the primary contractor among other contractors behind the design of both manned and unmannded spacecraft you mentioned here? If one was designed by committee so was the other. Also you do know that much of what was learned in the shuttle program went into improvements you see in the X-37B?. Surely you must know the X-37B doesn't have onboard redundant life support systems because there are no astronauts onboard to keep alive when the spacecraft is operational. /facepalm
    • by ackthpt (218170)

      Must be over-due for a good conspiracy theory

      We're establishing trade relations with the extraterrestrials, eventually we'll be outsourcing manufacturing to the stars!

    • by jamesh (87723)

      Must be over-due for a good conspiracy theory

      Sure is. If I was a government up to no good (which ones aren't?) i'd launch something like this too to take attention off what I was really up to...

    • Definitely! My tin foil hat has a thick layer of dust!

  • by kc67 (2789711)
    "...speculates the spaceplane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a testbed for future satellites." That is what we need. More speculation. I speculate it is full of bacon and will be headed for the moon. Everyone needs bacon, even those going to the moon.
    • by SomePgmr (2021234)

      Air force uses their space drone for testing and spying? I'd say his speculation is so likely as to be nearly assumed.

      I'm not quite so sure about the bacon deliveries.

    • "...speculates the spaceplane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a testbed for future satellites."

      That is what we need. More speculation. I speculate it is full of bacon and will be headed for the moon. Everyone needs bacon, even those going to the moon.

      Well we have been wanting to go back to the moon, and apparently it being made of cheese is not a good enough reason. Now it will be cheese topped with bacon.

      Mmm... bacon and cheese.

    • by dgatwood (11270)

      Everyone needs bacon, especially those going to the moon.

      FTFY.

  • by Kittenman (971447) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:42PM (#42254443)
    Military version of the shuttle, etc etc... conspiracy, etc etc ...
    • Toby would have shit himself already when we started drone striking U.S. citizens in Pakistan.

      • by Kittenman (971447)

        Toby would have shit himself already when we started drone striking U.S. citizens in Pakistan.

        Agreed. Suspect that would have been Leo's idea.

  • by pr0t0 (216378) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:42PM (#42254445)

    Up at the same time 4179 Toutatis makes it's closest flyby? Not a coincidence. While all telescopes will be trained on the 3-mile rock gently drifting past, the true mission of the X-37B will be underway. What's that mission? Oh you know, the usual...space-aliens from Vega.

    • by X0563511 (793323) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:54PM (#42254545) Homepage Journal

      Actually that sounds like an excellent opportunity to test the sensors. Can they track and get anything back from the asteroid? If you can catch a photo of an asteroid whizzing by, this tells you a lot about your effective capabilities.

      I'm impressed by the automated landing. Granted you don't have to be quite as careful as there are no meatbags inside, but it's still a damn cool feat.

      • by Alomex (148003) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @10:39PM (#42256589) Homepage

        I'm impressed by the automated landing. Granted you don't have to be quite as careful as there are no meatbags inside, but it's still a damn cool feat.

        The technology for automated landing was there 30 years ago when the shuttle was being built. The astronauts complained and demanded they pilot the craft, so changes were made. If not for those the shuttle would have already been 100% automated landing.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Someone earlier suggested that the cargo is bacon, which the Vegans find repulsive.

  • by phayes (202222) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @05:46PM (#42254477) Homepage

    Why not use the word cowering or is that just too transparently anti-military for the axe-grinding author?

    • by X0563511 (793323)

      Yea, I am amused as well. You know, because payload fairing is meant to keep you from seeing it right? Nevermind about drag. Nope, no reason at all you'd want to smooth the payload over during launch.

    • by sconeu (64226)

      I thought the same thing... I mean, no other payloads EVER get covered by an aerodynamic fairing. Must be a BIG CONSPIRACY!!!!

      Disclaimer: I *used* to work for a defense contractor.

      • by sconeu (64226)

        Apologies to dsinc. It's not his wording. It's the AP's wording. TFA uses "hidden".

    • Really, they used a rather stealthy explosive fuel mixture to get it into orbit as well.
      Only 3.5 million people in the surrounding area witnessed it.
      So regardless of the camouflage techniques they used...no one noticed at all.
  • Who from?

    Not like it's working anyway..
  • by trb (8509) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:14PM (#42254695)

    These high-tech mystery machines — 29 feet long — are about one-quarter the size of NASA's old space shuttles and can land automatically on a runway.

    The X-37B is not one-quarter the size of the Space Shuttle, it's one-quarter the length of the Space Shuttle. The launch weight of the X-37B is 5.5 tons. The launch weight of the Space Shuttle is 125 tons. This ignorance about the meaning of dimensions reminds me of the Stonehenge scene from Spinal Tap.

    • Size: physical magnitude, extent, or bulk : relative or proportionate dimensions

      I'd say both you and the article are correct. You're just using the word size in different context.
      And the space shuttle is 82tons without all the external fuel tanks and boosters.

    • by X0563511 (793323)

      Last I checked size meant physical dimensions, not mass or weight.

      Unless you want to try arguing that two balls, otherwise identical but one made of wood while the other iron, are of a different size?

      • by tragedy (27079)

        In terms of physical dimensions, ie volume, this thing is a lot smaller than the shuttle. If it were the same shape as the space shuttle, but a quarter the length, it would have only 1/64th the volume. As it is, 29 feet isn't even one quarter of the length of the space shuttle, but instead more like 1/6th, which puts this craft at something like 1/216th the size of the space shuttle. The X-37B is comparable in size to a large consumer pickup truck. From the weight figures that have been thrown around, it's

        • by cusco (717999)
          More likely the extra weight is a nuke. The Air Farce has wanted a nuke they could de-orbit at a moment's notice since they experimented with it back in the '70s.
          • by tragedy (27079)

            If it's not just fuel, it's more likely that it's just the result of the square-cube ratio in action. It's obviously not just a scaled down shuttle, but it helps to imagine it that way. If you took a shuttle and scaled it down 1/6th in every dimension, you couldn't actually scale the thickness of the sheet metal. If you did, it would basically be foil and wouldn't be able to withstand the launch stresses. So, a mini version of the shuttle would need to be made of metal with about the same gauge as the full

    • by mbkennel (97636)

      http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ef/World's_First_Five_Spaceplanes.PNG [wikimedia.org]

      This picture gives a good scale view.

      The Shuttle Orbiter is much much bigger than the X37.

  • > "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"

    Duh, ya think?

  • Good for the USAF (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Animats (122034) on Tuesday December 11, 2012 @06:38PM (#42254863) Homepage

    It's good to see the USAF with some general-purpose space capability. They now have something that can go up to low orbit for a reasonable cost, stay up for a while, and carry a range of payloads. Useful.

  • You know some in the military are hoping to use it, if they don't already have a prototype ready to go on the spacecraft, to deliver a "Project Thor" type kinetic weapon system to orbit. While the bay of this thing (7'x 4') wouldn't be able to fit the larger or even medium class Thor weapon, it would be able to fit a smaller one for taking out a motorcade/vehicle/person.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinetic_bombardment [wikipedia.org]

  • The mini shuttles are obviously escape pods.
    I only wonder where the Attack Vessel is to which they belong!

  • The author could have easily chose to say "protected" rather than "hidden". The word "hidden" carries implications ... but in this case the implications are a joke; Even without a payload shroud, the contents of the vehicle would have been blocked from view because they are in a payload bay just like on the shuttles

  • ...well it could be a specialized replacement for the Shuttle, but more likely its a replacement for the high-altitude spy planes - e.g. SR-71 and similar. It's can be more effectively moved around than a satellite so it can easily be where they want it and when. True, people can track it and try to hide from it, but they may not have time to - at least for things like the Cuban Missle Crisis (though to be honest, those days are likely long long gone any how).

Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious animal on earth.

Working...