NASA X-37B Space Plane MIA. High Flying Spy In The Sky, Next Generation Research Tool or Weapons Platform?…

The X-37B, a Space Plane with many masters, a true multi-purpose platform jointly developed by NASA, Boeing, DARPA, the US Air Force and more widely the US Defense Department. Starting life as the Space Shuttle utility belt the X-37B has evolved to be one of the most flexible and economical space platforms in use today.

Dressed in its black and white tux – heat shield – this James Bond wanna-be has once again disappeared from view, in easy to spot low Earth orbit – 300km -. Off on another top secret mission, what tales will he tell his masters upon his return? Orbital tracking records indicate the X-37B has been off station since the 12th of January, 2012. This is the third such disappearance of an X-37B since orbital testing began in 2010.

The tale of the X-37 Program is filled with mystery and intrigue, pleasant surprises from unexpected potential. Starting life as a blue collar maintenance droid, refueling and repairing satellites, the X-37B has by far exceeded those original aspirations. Partly out of necessity, with the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program leaving a large gap in NASA’s launch capabilities, and partly due to the X-37Bs brilliant design it has risen to every challenge. It is now a true multi-mission autonomous space plane. A little mini space shuttle that just gets the job done. What is the X-37B? A high flying spy in the sky, next generation research tool, weapons platform or all of the above!?

Throughout the X-37 development program the design philosophy of ‘Just enough to do the job’ has been applied. From the Atlas V rocket used to reach orbit to the design of the X-37B itself Boeing has used built the best value space vehicle possible. Reliability and low cost has been at the center of this philosophy from the beginning.

While the retired Space Shuttles set records for payload and re-usability, during its last days it also set records for cost and man hours required to launch into space. 14,000 people were required to prepare for the final Shuttle mission. This eventually doomed the Space Shuttle to being parked in museums, especially when President Obama took a razor to NASA’s budget.

The X-37B returns.

In its current incarnation the X-37B is much smaller than the Space Shuttle that it resembles, it could be considered the Shuttles Mini-Me. NASA’s original designs actually called for the Space Shuttle to carry the X-37B into orbit, this plan was quickly changed after they released this was uneconomical – and when they realized the potential number of ‘space shuttle shuttle’ jokes that are possible -.

The X-37B’s diminutive dimensions – 8.9 meters – would have allowed it to fit into the Shuttle’s payload bay perfectly. The similarities in shape were also part of the original plan, in order to make it easy to launch and capture it requires similar drag and flight characteristics to the original Space Shuttle. The Payload bay of the X-37B is naturally much smaller than the Space Shuttles, about the size of a pick-up trucks rear tray. Large enough for smaller satellites and test equipment. Is there an even smaller X-37B in there somewhere? Russian doll style !

The Atlas V rocket that is used to haul the X-37B into orbit is one of the most reliable and economical launch vehicles available at the moment. It’s not the most powerful rocket in the world, the Russians now hold that title with their Proton-M heavy lift rockets, but an Atlas V is enough to get the X-37B into orbit. In the past 10 years all 12 Atlas V launches have made it into space, one failed to reach the right part of space but at least it didn’t blow up. Not many launch systems can make that claim.

Inside the rocket fairing nearly ready for launch.

While there is much talk about the X-37B’s unmanned nature it is far more than a space based remote control plane. Using similar technology to the latest Mars rovers the Space Plane is a fully autonomous vehicle. The mission controllers are able to give it mission objectives and it carries them out. You simply wind it up – figuratively – and point it in the right direction. Even re-entry and landing can be done automatically, hit the ‘Return to Base’ button and it’ll turn up on the runway a few hours later. Of course there are still manual control systems available – not just a joystick and monitor in a caravan somewhere – at the Marshal Space Flight Center, mission control.

The X-37B preparing for launch.

Also ground breaking is the short turnaround time required to get the X-37B back into space. A much reduced turnaround time – from landing to relaunch – when compared to all other space craft. Even with Boeing being over cautious there was only 3 months between the first two missions. In theory if the US Air Force were under the pump this could be reduced to as little as a few weeks, especially if Atlas V rockets have been prepared before-hand. By comparison at best the space shuttle achieved a 6 month turn around, which blew out to nearly 24 months after the second Shuttle disasters.

Early mission goals for the X-37 program included many utilitarian tasks; refueling and repairing satellites, offensive and defensive payloads as part of the Space Control program – Defensive Counter-Space, Offensive Counter-Space – as well as orbital testing of various equipment. The X-37B’s current mission began with it again being launch from Cape Canaveral on March 5th, 2011. With it perched atop an Atlas V rocket, housed in its protective fairing it’s mission began.

The original mission plan called for its return 270 days later – November 30, 2011, it has now been on orbit for an extra 49 days -, the limit of its designated endurance. Officially the Air Force extended this mission in late October of 2011 turning this into an endurance test.

The X-37B’s electrical power is provided by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells, these are the most powerful and expensive solar cells available. When combined with the fact that the solar cells are operating in space, clear of the earth atmosphere these panels should be able power the electronics indefinitely. Propellant is the major limitation to the X-37s orbital endurance, more specifically the use of chemical propellants for propulsion. New electrical propulsion systems could work around this in the future – Ion Plasma or Electra-Hydrodynamics -.

“We initially planned for a nine-month mission, which we are roughly at now, but we will continue to extend the mission as circumstances allow,” said Lt. Col Tom McIntyre, the spacecraft’s systems program director. “Keeping the X-37 in orbit will provide us with additional experimentation opportunities and allow us to extract the maximum value out of the mission. We are learning new things about the vehicle every day, which makes the mission a very dynamic process.”

The X-37B explained.

The X-37B has had many growing pains in its life so far, with its story having had many twists and turns during its still ongoing development program. Initiated by NASA in 1999 in order to make space flight a more affordable proposition, these early expectations quickly expanded as various US government departments realized its potential.

The X-37 program was transferred from NASA to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA – on 13 September 2004. This turned the program into a Defense Department project, and at the same time brought down the shrouds of secrecy. NASA is still closely involved with the project, along with Boeing, DARPA, the US Air Force and more widely the US Defense Department. The potential of the X-37 program was quickly realized by all parts of the US government.

Boeing’s Integrated Defense Systems took part in the early development phases of the X-37 program and was eventually given the contract to manufacture the little space plane that could. The design, development and construction of the vehicles was carried out at a number of Boeing’s ‘Phantom Works’ facilities across California. NASA runs the project out of its Marshal Space Flight Center located at the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

Artist impression of the X-37B flying.

Four variations have been been constructed – 3 flown and the forth to fly in 2012 – as part of the X-37 program. The development of the program began with the X-40A, the original test bed. Incapable of re-entry from space due to a lack of thermal protection, rockets or any internals at all for that matter, this was purely an aerodynamics test-bed. Dropped from a Chinook helicopter for free flight tests in 2001 which it passed with flying colors. Next the X-37B Approach and Landing Test Vehicle was constructed and tested –7 April 2006 – to ensure that the vehicle could perform the return mission autonomously.

Two orbital variations have been constructed, Orbital Test Vehicle 1 – OTV-1 – and OTV-2. OTV-2 is the current test bed and orbits high above our heads on its extended mission. Throughout the testing and development various improvements have been made. Originally the OTV-1 was powered by a Rocketdyne AR2 engine the OTV-2 now uses a hypergolic nitrogen tetroxide / hydrazine rocket, a more common fuel and rocket system for NASA to use. Also heat shielding improvements and structural strengthening were applied to the OTV-2. Power while in space is provided by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells and lithium-Ion batteries that allow the X-37B to stay in orbit for up to 270 days at a time – NASA’s stated orbital endurance -.

The X-37B is evolving quickly, another advantage of starting small. The X-37B OTV-3 will take flight in 2012. There is little information on the upgrades being carried out or the final capabilities of this new version. Boeing in October 2011 let slip that a two other variants of the X-37B were in design stages. One version according to X-37B project chief Art Grantz includes an enlarged design that increases it from 9 meters to 14.3 meters in length, allowing it to carry between 5 and 7 astronauts.

The OTV-1 flew the first orbital mission, USA-212, launched on 22 April 2010 atop an Atlas V rocket. The latest mission USA-226 is still ongoing using the OTV-2 and was also launched using an Atlas V rocket, March 5th 2011.

A 3D rendering of the X-37B orbiting with solar panels deployed.

Much of the mystery surrounding the X-37B actually has more to do with its masters not the space plane itself. The X-37B is not only a NASA mission, instead it has been developed for and paid for by many parts of the US government, including the Defense Department.

This military connection is responsible for many of the weaponization of space rumors. Which isn’t to say that the use of the X-37B as a space based weapons platform aren’t being investigated. If the US Defense Department has spent over $100 million USD on the project they are indeed looking into it. Sadly there is very no evidence to support the theory though.

Every X craft development program attracts much attention, no matter how secret its mission may be. The X-37 program is no exception. X-37B even has its own groupies that take great pleasure at tracking it as it passes over head, tracking and plotting the X-37B’s orbit since 2010. Most of the time they seem to be able to do a very good job of it as well. A community has even sprung up, sharing the orbital trajectories and even updating tracking software to allow easy tracking. Until it disappears that is.

With this most recent disappearance there have been three disappearance events where the craft has left low Earth orbit, for long periods at times. Eventually reappearing back in a neworbit. Like an alcoholic on the bender to end all benders no-one knows what has happened during these disappearance event – black outs -.

The X-37B assembly in the labs.

The first event occurred when the X-37B left low Earth orbit for two weeks, July 29 2010 to August 14 2010. The second event happened during October 7th to 9th 2010, only a short 2 day bender apparently. This current event began January 12, 2012.

Quite a buzz was generated amongst amateur astronomers, speculating on the mystery missions. Of course the people that matter – NASA, DoD – know where it is at all times, especially when it’s on these missions. As is normal in these situations no answer and denial always causes the wildest speculation.

By far our favorite at Highpants is the theory that revolves around the X-37B doing a trip to the dark side of the moon to initiate an alien war. All we know for sure is that the mission weren’t done in low earth orbit where astronomers can keep an eye on it.

The X-37B in the labs.

As the mythology of the X-37B grows even Russia is jumping on the conspiracy bandwagon. Recently in an interview with daily Izvestia Russia’s Space Agency – Roscosmos – chief Vladimir Popovkin stopped short of directly blaming the X-37B for Russia’s recent satellite and launch failures. He was more than willing to imply that external forces were involved. Stating that the ‘unexplained’ failures had occurred on the other side of the world, out of the range of Russia’s tracking facilities.

The most recent buzz created by the X-37 program relates to the currently orbiting X-37B being used to spy on the Chinese space program. China has already announced its plans to construct its own space station and possibly venture further afield to the moon, claiming a slice for themselves. November 2010 saw China launch the Shenzhou VIII, an unmanned space craft that would dock with already orbiting Tiangong-1 or “Heavenly Palace”, which had been launched a month earlier. The countries first space docking maneuver.

Compounding the rumor, just as the Chinese were launching their latest hardware the X-37B’s mission was mysteriously extended for an undetermined period of time and now the latest disappearance.

Also adding to the buzz was the fact that the orbital paths of both the X-37B and the Tiangong-1 at the time did intersect twice per orbit, very briefly. With both craft flying at 300 kilometers high this could be considered an observable proximity in space. Still it’s not as if the X-37B was stopping and taking down serial numbers, they are both traveling at 17,000 kilometers per hour in opposite directions. It’s like two bullets saying hello as they pass by, very brief. Even the experts and sources of this buzz were conflicted on this one. It would be very surprising if the X-37B wasn’t collecting some kind of information about the Chinese craft, there is nothing illegal about making observations.

Since the decommissioning of the world’s greatest spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird, the US government has relied on satellites and drones to watch the world outside of their borders. Ground observations from space start to make a lot of sense with as camera platform like the X-37B.

3D rendering of the X-37B in flight.

While satellites are a reliable platform for this purpose they have serious limitations as a tool for covert observations. By nature they are locked into specific orbits, whether they be in place or orbiting the aren’t flexible enough to be a true on demand observer. Unfortunately many of the things that the US government wish to observe don’t stand still and wait for the satellite to pass overhead.

During the China spying buzz many observers realized the orbit actually passed over Afghanistan every two hours. This is the perfect real world test of such observation skills.

That’s part of the beauty of the X37B, it could be doing all of these things. It’s payload is secret as are many parts of its missions, leaving plenty of gaps for speculation. The facts remain that by nature the X-37B is designed to be a flexible space platform that reduces the cost of space exploration. Wither exploring the use of weapons or the latest spy technology the X-37B can get anything into orbit at a much lower cost than other space craft.

The X-37B is the new workhorse of NASA’s space program, closing the gap between space shuttle and space plane, this the ultimate multi-purpose space vehicle. Flying at mach 25 high up in the sky, the X-37B isn’t just a rendering of an engineers imagination, it is up there now carrying out it’s tests, looking over NASA’s shoulder and doing it’s satellite house keeping daily duties. Finally NASA returns to it’s core business, working in space.


X-37 ALTV Test Flight

Launch X-37B on Atlas V 501

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X-37B Specifications
Official Mission: Experimental test vehicle
Contractor: Boeing
Height: 9 feet, 6 inches (2.9 meters)
Length: 29 feet, 3 inches (8.9 meters)
Wingspan: 14 feet, 11 inches (4.5 meters)
Launch Weight: 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms)
Power: Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries
Launch Vehicle: United Launch Alliance Atlas V (501)