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SpaceX Will Launch Secretive X-37B Spaceplane's Next Mission (latimes.com) 83

schwit1 quotes a report from Los Angeles Times: SpaceX will launch the Air Force's X-37B experimental spaceplane later this year, in the military's latest vote of confidence in the Elon Musk-led space company. This will be the first time SpaceX has launched the uncrewed robotic vehicle. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., has launched the spaceplane's previous four missions atop one of its Atlas V rockets. The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which is responsible for the X-37B's experimental operations, said it was "very excited" for the fifth flight, which will test how special electronics and heat pipes will fare during a long-duration space mission. The Air Force has two of the spaceplanes, which look like miniature versions of the space shuttle and are known officially as X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles. The first X-37B was launched in 2010.
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SpaceX Will Launch Secretive X-37B Spaceplane's Next Mission

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  • More like "vote of cutting corners". Aka "you're cheaper, I'm insured, fire it up for all I care".

    • Surely the USAF self insures?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Rei ( 128717 )

        Indeed. And I'm sure they have quite a bit of money wrapped up in the X-37B.

        • In the technology, not so much the prototype.

          Wanna bet the between flight overhaul cost is a big % of the per unit cost? How would we ever know?

    • by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Thursday June 08, 2017 @07:42AM (#54575657) Homepage Journal

      It's the US Military - cost is not a factor.

      What excites the USAF brass is SpaceX turnaround. Musk is targeting 24 hrs for a Falcon 9b5 turnaround; with any extra capacity he could put another X37B into orbit with a few days' notice. That is tremendously advantageous for space soldiers and spies.

      • Keeping costs low makes it easier to hide programs that they don't want The People to know about, so there's benefit there as well.

        • Keeping costs low makes it easier to hide programs that they don't want

          sigh....

          Is this opposite day for you again?

          It is keeping budgets high that allows hiding expenditures, dumbass.

          • Keeping costs low makes it easier to hide programs that they don't want

            It is keeping budgets high that allows hiding expenditures, dumbass.

            Costs != Budgets, kid. Keep trying though, son.

  • The USA managed to build and launch an airliner sized crewed reusable spaceplane called the shuttle in the 1970s. I'd love to know whats so cutting edge about the X35 that they're trying to keep this midget version of the shuttle secret. Warp engines? Dilithium crystals? Or just too embarresed to show that space technology has barely advanced in 40 years?

    • by Luckyo ( 1726890 ) on Thursday June 08, 2017 @06:31AM (#54575441)

      Fucking with satellites of other nations?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Most likely something to do with satellite tapping or interference. Or at least that would be one of the least surprising end goals of this whole project. They might start small scale by seeing how well the spacecraft can hide from being detected by monitoring stations on Earth.

        • Must not be doing a good job of trying to hide it--I've observed OTV4 (most recent mission) in orbit about four or five times.
          • by Anonymous Coward

            Yes, but you probably didn't see the ion-thruster microsats that it released in order to cause all manner of mischief and mayhem.

      • Yeah, pretty much. I mean, China is at least direct about it, blowing up sats and whatnot on a whim. I'm guessing we just do things differently for the sport of it. That, and keep shrapnel out of orbit.

      • by idji ( 984038 )
        I really cannot imagine this. Whatever secret things this does in orbit, it cannot really hide it's orbit (see http://scalsky.com/ [scalsky.com] and it cannot change it's orbit by much, so any satellite owner can easily tell if their satellite is at any risk of being approached.
        Plus a ground based station is probably MUCH closer to a LEO satellite than the X-37B can reach, and would have far more power to interfere.
        I don't think it is interfering with space objects, but rather observing the ground.
    • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Thursday June 08, 2017 @06:44AM (#54575479)

      The USA managed to build and launch an airliner sized crewed reusable spaceplane called the shuttle in the 1970s.

      At huge expense and suspect reliability. The shuttle never lived up to the expectations for the project. It was too expensive and complex. The shuttle wasn't in principle a bad idea but the final design was something we did because we could, not because it was the best approach. We probably should have done something more along the lines of the Apollo Applications Program [wikipedia.org] had we known what we know now.

      I'd love to know whats so cutting edge about the X35 that they're trying to keep this midget version of the shuttle secret.

      Probably little or nothing to do with the external parts of the craft. Could be weapons, surveillance equipment, or it might just be a test bed for classified technology. It's staying in orbit for really long periods of time so that's probably a hint. Lots of potential reasons why it's all hush hush.

      • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

        The shuttle was never used to its full capabilities. Nothing in the AAP could have safely brought a satellite back from orbit as the shuttle managed on 4 occasions.

        • The shuttle was never used to its full capabilities.

          Disagree. The problem with the shuttle was that it's capabilities weren't what they needed to be. Technically it was reusable but so much work and expense went into each refurbishment that they may as well have not bothered. The shuttle was supposed to reduce cost to orbit and it did nothing of the sort. The fact that it was capable of bringing items back from orbit is a minor detail which misses the big picture. The shuttle wasn't economically capable of solving the space junk problem which is really

      • Shuttle was the omnitool that could do everything. Problem was, as it is with all omnitools, it wasn't particularly good at any of the jobs it was capable of.
        • Shuttle was the omnitool that could do everything.

          It could do a lot but it could not do anything cheaply. It was too complicated, too expensive, too unreliable, and unfocused. We got ahead of ourselves with the shuttle and turned a reasonable idea (reusable flight vehicle) into a jobs program which needlessly cost 14 astronauts their lives and held our space program back for three decades.

    • by phayes ( 202222 ) on Thursday June 08, 2017 @07:30AM (#54575625) Homepage

      It can stay in orbit for months to validate technology which cannot be tested any other way.
      It soft-lands so that the experiments can be controlled and validated
      It can be launched on any EELV compliant launcher
      It doesn't cost >$1B to refurbish for each launch.

      I don't recall all of these existing 40 years ago in a single vehicle...

      • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

        The shuttle could have stayed in orbit for months if it didn't have a crew. And I don't see this thing taking a full crew + 22 ton payload anytime soon. I'm not saying the shuttle was the best there could have been, but compared to this thing it was a 747 compared to a cessna.

        • The shuttle could have stayed in orbit for months if it didn't have a crew.

          So what? It would still have been outrageously expensive to launch, overly complicated, unreliable (two failures in just over 100 missions), required substantial refurbishment between missions, etc. There simply are better ways to solve the problems the shuttle was supposed to tackle. It was a design by committee that ultimately failed in its primary purpose which was to reduce cost to orbit and allow more rapid launches. This isn't to say it wasn't a capable vehicle but the economics of it were poor an

        • by phayes ( 202222 )

          Any shuttle launched without a crew would have crashed and burned as the shuttles were unable to perform fully automated landings

          Stop trying to make the X-35b into what it isnt: a shuttle, SLS's time of >$1billlion per launch costs is thankfully in the past and is a poor yardstick to use in any case.

    • by GNious ( 953874 )

      Should be easy enough to find out "whats so cutting edge about the X35" - it became the JSF.

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

    • Recall that a good number of Shuttle flights were run by the Air Force and that much of the flight manifest and records are classified. So, the Shuttle had some utility for the AF. Think of the XB-37 as Shuttle 2 - minus the meatsacs and a couple of other things that they found out they didn't need.

      My toy box. All mine.

    • The Space Craft is not a secret.

      It's the cargo.

  • Good launch to watch (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Michael Woodhams ( 112247 ) on Thursday June 08, 2017 @07:13AM (#54575573) Journal

    When they launched the spy satellite, it was the best launch coverage (streamed on youtube) to date, in my opinion. Rockets go up all the time, it is rockets coming back down which is unusual and special. Because of the payload, the coverage of that mission didn't look at stage II at all, so we got better coverage of the booster (stage I) return, including continuous launch-to-landing ground telescope images of the booster, plus continuous video from the booster. I have high hopes that this launch will be similar.

  • by drewsup ( 990717 ) on Thursday June 08, 2017 @07:42AM (#54575659)

    Do the drop the X designation?? Almost a decade if flight, I think it passed the test , and what would its new designator be ?

    • There's are two. It stays an X when it moves to mass production. Even the sr-71 had dozens of model built.

      Seriously how hard is it to not realize that the difference in designation is as simple as number of units built to a model.

      • Uh, no, the SR-71 didn't have an "X" designator. It was an "SR", not X(Experimental).

        X series planes do receive a new designation when they become slated for regular production - see the X-35 becoming the F-35: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
        The production version is technically new/different, but it's more the relationship of prototype and production model (though prototypes planned as such have a Y designation rather than X).
        • by sl3xd ( 111641 )

          My favorite useless fact about the SR-71: The armed forces have a standard for how they are designated [wikipedia.org], and that particular version of the plane was designated RS-71.

          But a General preferred "SR" over the standard, and had a speech by President Johnson altered to use SR-71 instead; but the Media's transcripts still had "RS" in it, leading the media to believe the POTUS misread it.

          The reason why it uses "71" instead of "12" (to go along with Y-12, A-12) is because there was a contemporary prototype, the XB-7

    • X before something else is a pre-production test. Like XF-35, which will become the F-35. X alone is an aircraft to perform tests, like the X-15. The X-15 would still be called that even if we were still using it today.
    • Generally if it becomes slated for mass production (even in small numbers) and regular operational use, it will trade the X designation for a regular one. The new designation would probably be based on the role. Per the Air Force designation rules (which are really more guidelines, given how often they choose to break with them), it would probably be something like RS-37 or RS-2 (meaning Reconnaissance Spaceplane) depending on whether they used the next available "Spaceplane" number, or retained the X serie
    • Do the drop the X designation?? Almost a decade if flight, I think it passed the test , and what would its new designator be ?

      I don't think so. All the X-planes [wikipedia.org] have been test vehicles to test new tech that would hopefully be integrated into other designs. Quite a few of the x-planes have been space planes or lifting body tests that have probably contributed to the X-37B. Although most never made it to reality or flew, the Air Force has apparently been wanting a space plane for a long time, since the 60's at least with the X-20. That this one was built and has been flown several times, and that they have released some of the uses

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