Launch Companies Beg NASA: Save the Space Planes!
By David Axe November 30, 2010 | 1:54 pm
In April, the Air Force launched into orbit its brand-new X-37B robotic space-plane, a maneuverable vehicle capable of spying on earth — and on other spacecraft — for nine months at a time. Now America’s private space companies want their own speedy, reusable space-plane in the vein of the X-37. To get it, late last year they motivated a NASA engineer to drag two long-defunct prototypes out of open-air desert storage. We’ve reported on the resurrection of the X-34 space-planes twice before in recent weeks, but only now are we beginning to appreciate the implications of the prototypes’ revival for the increasingly privatized U.S. space strategy.
Two weeks ago, Flight broke the news that NASA was inspecting its two long-grounded X-34 space planes, with an eye to possibly returning them to flight-testing. If successful, the effort could help the space agency catch up with the Air Force and its mysterious X-37B. Or so we assumed.
Following up with NASA and Orbital Sciences (the X-34s’ original builder), we learned that NASA wasn’t interested in operating the 59-foot-long, robotic X-34s for its own purposes. Rather, the agency would make the mid-1990s-vintage X-34s available to space entrepreneurs, in line with the Obama Administration’s “commercialization” of space exploration. “It would be helpful if they had a vehicle,” NASA official Alan Brown said of the growing ranks of space companies.
Now, thanks to a key player in the X-34 revival, we know a lot more about the origins of the effort. Turns out, private industry drove the initiative from the beginning. This reflects a profound shift in the way America approaches space exploration.
We originally reported that the idea to retrieve the X-34s from their purgatory at an Air Force bombing range in California originated with a NASA engineer. The engineer in question was Dave Huntsman, with the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA HQ in Washington, D.C. Huntsman dropped us an email to refine our portrayal of events.
“The real idea didn’t come from me, or my Dryden buddies, or from Orbital Sciences who built them [the X-34s],” Huntsman wrote. “It came during a week in October 2009, simultaneously, at a workshop in Dayton, Ohio (where the Air Force Research Lab is based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base), from two different entrepreneurial space companies.”
With Obama’s February decision to privatize space exploration, the annual workshop — jointly hosted by NASA and the Air Force on behalf of America’s space companies — reflected what Huntsman called a “paradigm shift” for U.S. space exploration. This year, NASA and the Air Force let the entrepreneurs take the lead in discussions. In separate, closed-door meetings, reps from two different companies asked Huntsman about the X-34s’ status. “Most of us didn’t even know the X-34s still existed, since it had been years since program cancellation,” the engineer mused.
Propelled by industry’s interest, Huntsman placed a few calls and located the X-34s on the bombing range. Sensing the renewed interest, in January the Air Force voluntarily towed the X-34s off the range, pictured — a tedious, weeks-long undertaking complicated by mud and distance. To pay for inspections, Huntsman and a growing band of allies counted on a phenomenon unique to government budget cycles.
“With the Dryden guys, I proposed to my boss (at the time) earlier this year that if any funds freed up in September 2010 (as fiscal year was ending) — not an uncommon occurrence — that we take AFRL up on their offer to fund half of a $400,000 study to determine the exact status of the vehicles by Orbital,” Huntsman wrote. “And that’s what happened.”
It’ll be another month until the inspections are complete, according to NASA. Only then will we know whether the X-34s have a future supporting private space exploration. Either way, the attention paid to the vehicles itself represents a sort of victory. “After 36 years in the agency, I’ve been one of the handful of malcontents the last few years trying to shift the agency’s paradigm to helping establish economically-sustainable commercial space flight,” Huntsman told us. With the X-34 resurrection, he took a small but important step toward that goal.
Photo: Dave Huntsman
Secret Space Plane Finally Lands; Twin Preps for Launch
By David Axe December 3, 2010 | 9:48 am
After 225 days in orbit the Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane touched down today at 1:16 am local time at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was only the second fully-automated re-entry and runway landing in the history of space flight. The Soviets achieved the first in 1988 with the robotic prototype of their Buran Space Shuttle clone.
Space plane program manager Lt. Col. Troy Giese says that “today’s landing culminates a successful mission” which “completed all the on-orbit objectives.” But the Air Force has been consistently vague about what that mission really was; for a while, military personnel claimed they didn’t even know when the X-37B was coming back to Earth.
With a payload bay roughly the size of a pickup-truck bed, the 29-foot-long robot could carry sensors or even weapons. Its maneuverability — amateur skywatchers tracked the X-37 making four major course-changes — means it could sneak up on and hijack other nations’ satellites. Or it could be a mere flying laboratory, as the Air Force insists.
“I still stand by my initial assessment that its primary mission was likely to be test-flight of new sensors or satellite hardware,” says Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation. He adds that he thinks the X-37 has “pretty much zero utility as a ’space bomber’” or satellite-killer.
One thing is clear: the X-37 saga has just begun. The Air Force has commissioned Boeing to build a second X-37, to enter service next spring. And the first X-37 could find itself back in orbit in short order, as well.
After all, one of the advantages of airplane-style spacecraft is their reusability. Lacking disposable stages like a rocket capsule, they don’t have to be pieced back together post-mission. Just check out the electronics and the plumbing, inspect the skin for cracks and, in theory, you’ve got a spaceworthy vehicle.
“It will be interesting to see how fast they can turn the X-37B around for another launch,” Weeden says. “That is going to be a key indicator of how ‘operational’ the technology is and its value to supporting the war-fighter.”
Even if its initial tests were a bust and it proves incapable of quickly returning to space, the X-37 has already changed the world. The vehicle’s mere existence threatened to spark a minor space race between the U.S. and rival powers. And the X-37 boosted the ambitions of commercial space-launch advocates who are wheedling NASA for access to their own reusable, low-orbit space plane.
What Could X-37B Do?
By Colin Clark Friday, December 3rd, 2010 4:03 pm
The wonderfully sort-of-secret X-37B is back on terra firma after a long stay in space. Very little information beyond its appearance, dimensions and the fact that the Air Force is deploying it is known about the vehicle, which looks a lot like a mini space shuttle. The vehicle can stay in orbit for at least nine months.
As someone who spent five years at Space News — much of that time covering intelligence issues — I’m going to engage in some informed speculation.
It could take advanced sensors into space for testing and, probably, allow sensors to operate from the X-35B as a large, stable platform with an independent power source. That power source (folding solar panels) might free sensors from carrying batteries, which would make them much smaller and lighter and perhaps extend their operational life.
One set of sensors the nation desperately needs would be related to space situational awareness — small telescopes, infrared and other sensors. The X-37B might be ideally suited to this sort of mission...........edited.................
Read more: http://www.dodbuzz.com/2010/12/03/wh...#ixzz17OMAxVUa
Gallery: Inside the Secret Space Plane Landing
By Noah Shachtman December 6, 2010 | 12:23 pm
When the Air Force launched its secret, robotic space plane this spring, military officials confessed that they weren't exactly sure when it was coming back. More than seven months later, the X-37B landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where it was met with Air Force personnel in SCAPE suits (self-contained atmospheric protective ensemble). They gave the robo-orbiter an initial once-over — and made sure the area was safe for humans, too.
Here are the pictures (and infrared video) of the landing, courtesy of U.S. Air Force Space Command.
What the 29-foot-long craft did during all those months in orbit is still a matter of intense speculation. Conspiratorially minded types conjectured that it might be a prototype for an orbiting bomber. Others warned of "a johnny-on-the-spot weapons platform to take out the satellite assets of an enemy."
Prominent members of the Russian military establishment screamed that Moscow needed to build up its own space arsenal, ASAP. The British press, meanwhile, made dark insinuations about "the testing of new laser weapon systems" in space.
Better-informed observers believe the X-37B could be used by the Pentagon as a cheap replacement for the all-but-defunct Space Shuttle — a way to get spy sensors into orbit in a hurry.
And the U.S. military's use of space planes is only getting started. As David Axe noted last week, the Air Force has commissioned a second X-37, to enter service next spring. The first X-37 could find itself back in orbit in short order, as well. Which means we could see more dudes in crazy-looking suits meeting up with robotic spacecraft soon.
See heaps of great pics here:
X-37B Prepared For Expanded Orbital Test
Dec 7, 2010
By Guy Norris firstname.lastname@example.org
The U.S. Air Force says the second planned mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) will “expand the operating envelope” of the autonomous space vehicle, potentially increasing the orbital cross-range and capability of landing in stronger crosswinds.
Richard McKinney, Air Force undersecretary for space programs, says the second test X-37B—OTV-2—is being prepared in Boeing’s California space facilities for transfer “soon” to Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla. From there it will be launched on an Atlas V in the March-April 2011 time period.
Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager from the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (Afrco), which manages the X-37B program, says OTV-2’s mission will focus on “expanding the operating envelope of what its capabilities are. This time, we put more restrictions on landing winds and on orbiting cross-range. We picked an orbit that was well within its ability to get back to Vandenberg Air Force Base,” he adds. The next flight may have a more exaggerated orbit to test the cross-range recovery characteristics and may end up with an attempted recovery in more marginal weather.
McKinney and Giese commented on the Air Force plans for OTV-2 following the successful autonomous landing and recovery of OTV-1 at Vandenberg in the early hours of Dec. 3 after a 244-day mission.
But the landing, which was the first successful runway recovery of an autonomous space vehicle since the 1988 demonstration launch and landing of the former Soviet Union’s Buran unmanned space shuttle, was not without incident. McKinney says the vehicle’s left main landing gear tire blew out on touchdown—a mishap not easily spotted in initial photos released by the Air Force. However program officials say the fact the X-37B continued to roll down the runway centerline without deviation following the blowout of the 300-psi. dinner-plate-size tire is a testament to the integrity of its control system.
Shreds of ruptured tire caused some damage to the belly of the vehicle, which also was pitted in several places by unidentified space debris. “Where it came from we don’t know,” McKinney says, adding that initial inspections have revealed damage in “about seven” places to the thermal protection tiles and vehicle body. However, McKinney says evidence of impacts and tire burst does not diminish the overall performance of the vehicle or its test accomplishments over an almost eight-month space mission. “The purpose of this particular mission was the vehicle,” he adds.
Stressing the use of the OTV as a test platform, McKinney downplays the possible role of the X-37B itself as a reusable vehicle for responsive space roles. “It’s a test vehicle. We want to be able to put objects in to space and test them out, and exercise them.” As such, OTV “does not replace the other [responsive space] capabilities such as TacSat, but it gives us another dimension. We have the ability to research technologies, do experiments in space and return them to Earth. That’s a capability that’s been severely limited in the past. We have a very serious and important business in providing national security space capability, and our ability to examine those technologies before deployment is a big sought-after capability.”
OTV-1 primarily was aimed at checking out vehicle systems and design features, with a secondary emphasis on the more advanced sensor technology likely to feature more prominently in follow-up missions. Vehicle technology test targets for OTV-1 included advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal reusable insulation, and lightweight electromechanical flight systems. Giese says the flight also was a successful test of the vehicle’s ability to open its payload doors and deploy a solar array that provided onboard power for the duration of the mission.
On command, the X-37B autonomously folded the array, closed the doors (which contain radiator panels to dissipate heat into space), commenced a reentry burn, and performed a series of S-turns to bleed off energy like the space shuttle during its descent through the atmosphere. The entire flight profile in the “end game” was autonomous, Giese says, adding that, by design, “there was no way to take over the vehicle, although the 30th Space Wing [at Vandenberg] do have a way to terminate the flight.”
Last edited by buglerbilly; 08-12-10 at 04:02 AM.
Air Force's X-37B Historical Landing Advances Space Vehicle Technologies
(Source: U.S Air Force; issued December 7, 2010)
WASHINGTON --- After 244 days in space since its launch April 22 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., the X-37B orbital test vehicle landing marks the Air Force's latest step in experimental test missions to improve the service's space capabilities, officials said here Dec. 6.
The 11,000-pound OTV made an autonomous landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 3 at 1:16 a.m., allowing the Air Force to begin evaluation of its functions as a satellite communications, weather and material technology asset, said Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs Richard McKinney.
"We're in a very serious and important business of providing national security space capabilities for our nation," Mr. McKinney said. "Some of those capabilities are state-of-the-art, highly complex and very technical, ... and for its first flight, we're extremely pleased with the outcome of the X-37B."
Mr. McKinney said the ability to examine such high-tech technologies as space situational awareness, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and satellite development before they're made operational is a long-sought-after capability that the X-37B provides.
"Now we can test those capabilities long in advance of putting them in operational space," he said.
He added that the X-37B functions like other satellites with operators on Earth monitoring its travels -- with one fundamental difference.
"The vehicle was commanded to re-enter, and there's a pre-determined routine to fold up the solar array and then do its re-entry burn to reorient to the right position to survive the heat during re-entry," said Lt. Col. Troy Giese, the X-37B program manager for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
Lt. Col. Giese explained that there is no way to "take over" the vehicle upon landing, but 30th Space Wing range controllers at Vandenberg AFB could terminate the end of the flight had the X-37B broken any of the pre-determined safety boundaries.
"The ability to bring a small vehicle that's able to launch, operate and land autonomously is really quite an achievement," Mr. McKinney said. "Hopefully we'll be able to provide a new way for us to develop experiments and technologies for our national security."
Slated to launch in spring 2011, the X-37B OTV-2 orbit will incorporate lessons learned from OTV-1, Mr. McKinney said.
"The vehicle performed everything it was asked to do this particular flight, so now we need to see how the materials operated in this long duration and examine the vehicle, since it was designed to operate for long periods of time," he added.
SpaceX makes successful return to earth
A space capsule has been successfully launched into orbit and returned to earth by a private company for the first time.
An artist's impression of the Dragon spacecraft as it would look in orbit Photo: AFP/GETTY
By Jon Swaine, New York 12:57AM GMT 09 Dec 2010
The Dragon spacecraft, which has been developed by SpaceX, an American firm, blasted off atop the Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on Wednesday afternoon.
It circled the earth twice before landing west of the Mexican coast in the Pacific Ocean this evening. The company announced over Twitter: "Splashdown on target. Mission is a success!"
The capsule is expected to one day carry passengers to the International Space Station (ISS), including US astronauts as they begin to depend on commercially-run space travel after their shuttles are retired.
NASA, the US space agency, has a $1.6 billion (£1 billion) contract with SpaceX to provide 12 spacecraft that will be used to resupply the ISS from next year, when the shuttle programme ends, until 2016.
SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, one of the co-founders of PayPal, the internet payments company.
The Dragon craft, which was not carrying anyone during the test flight, will provide enough room for seven crew members plus cargo. Its next test is expected in the spring, when it will approach the ISS.
U.S. Army nanosatellite on first flight
08:44 GMT, December 10, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. | The first U.S. Army nanosatellite lifted off of Launch Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., today at 10:43 a.m. Eastern. This is the launch of the first U.S. Army-built satellite in more than 50 years. U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command is the Army lead for the SMDC-ONE nanosatellite program.
The Space and Missile Defense Command - Operational Nanosatellite Effect, or SMDC-ONE, launched on a Falcon 9 two-stage booster, a Space Exploration Technologies, Inc, or SpaceX, launch vehicle as a secondary payload. The primary payload for this flight is the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.
The primary objective of this maiden flight is to receive data from a ground transmitter and relay that data to a ground station. The intent of this technology demonstration is to build a number of identical satellites and deploy them together into Low Earth Orbit to simulate enhanced tactical communications capability and evaluate nanosat performance.
Approximately 45 minutes after launch, SMDC-ONE deployed from the Falcon 9 trunk unit located in the second stage of the rocket and was placed into a low earth orbit.
After being dormant for 30 minutes, the nanosatellite deployed its receiver antennas. Even though in a tumbling mode, the satellite contacted the ground station at USASMDC/ARSTRAT on Redstone Arsenal, Ala., and provided "state-of-health" data.
During orbits over the next four days contact with the second ground station in Colorado Springs, Colo., will be made during orbits.
After deployment, it is expected that SMDC-ONE will remain in orbit for approximately 30 days before dropping out of orbit. Because of its small size and weight, SMDC-ONE is expected to be destroyed during reentry in the atmosphere.
John Cummings, SMDC/ARSTRAT
Russians at work on military spaceplane
By Dan Thisdell
By Alexander Zudin
Russian Space Forces researchers are working on an unmanned reusable spacecraft similar to the US Air Force's Boeing X-37 orbital test vehicle, the head of the armed forces unit dedicated to military space operations has revealed.
Oleg Ostapenko, speaking just weeks after the end of the X-37B's maiden, 220-day mission, said: "Something has been done along these lines, but as to whether we will use it, only time will tell."
A move by Russia to develop a reusable spaceplane harks back to the Soviet Union's Buran space shuttle project. Buran was similar in concept and size to NASA's Space Shuttle, though the orbiter was designed to carry a much larger payload to orbit - 30,000kg compared with 17,000kg for the Shuttle.
According to NASA, Buran was launched once, in November 1988, orbiting twice before returning to the ground. The programme, however, was cancelled in 1993.
Russian Space Forces researchers are working on an unmanned reusable spacecraft similar to the US Air Force's Boeing X-37 (above)
Now that the Space Shuttle is preparing for its final two flights before the fleet is retired, both US and Russian programmes to develop reusable spaceplanes are in their infancy and, perhaps, embarking on a new space race. But neither country is developing anything resembling a replacement for Space Shuttle's capabilities. At 8.9m (29.25ft) long and with a 4.5m wingspan, the Boeing-built X-37B is much smaller than the 37m (122ft)-long Shuttle. The USAF has not revealed the 4,990kg (11,000lb) vehicle's orbit parameters or payload but, being unmanned, it is clearly not a direct replacement for the Shuttle, and Ostapenko's brief remarks about a Russian programme suggest a craft with similar limitations.
So far, all indications are that the X-37B programme is a success. The craft, launched on 22 April 2010 from Cape Canaveral, made an autonomous re-entry and returned safely to land at Vandenberg AFB on 3 December, after 224 days in orbit. The USAF has not disclosed details of the mission, but programme manager Lt Col Troy Giese, of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, says X-37B conducted on-orbit experiments for more than 220 days during its maiden flight and completed all on-orbit objectives. He says: "The vehicle performed everything it was asked to do this particular flight, so now we need to see how the materials operated in this long duration and examine the vehicle, since it was designed to operate for long periods of time."
Gliese says the programme is intended to perform risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies, adding that the first flight "culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between the 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office".
Following what Gliese calls a "refurbishment phase", a second launch, again via a Lockheed Martin Atlas V booster, is being readied for this spring.
While the Shuttle always had a military aspect to its operations, its inherent flexibility and manned configuration made it the standard-bearer for US civil and scientific space flight for 30 years. X-37B, or whatever operational vehicle may follow it, is clearly being developed for military use. As Richard McKinney, deputy under-secretary of the Air Force for space programmes, puts it: "We're in a very serious and important business of providing national security space capabilities for our nation. Some of those capabilities are state-of-the-art, highly complex and very technical."
Russia has already developed a reuseable space vehicle, the Buran space shuttle (above) which was launched once, in 1988. The programme, however, was cancelled in 1993
He adds that the ability to examine such technologies as space situational awareness, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and satellite development before they are made operational "is a long-sought-after capability that the X-37B provides. Now we can test those capabilities long in advance of putting them in operational space."
The Air Force describes X-37B technologies as being one generation beyond the Space Shuttle's, though the design, which dates to the late 1990s, has a Shuttle-like outer mould line. The programme's objectives are as much about developing fast, low-cost turnaround between flights as about on-orbit performance, though the facility to inspect it after lengthy periods in space is deemed critical.
While the X-37B may look like a small, unmanned version of the Space Shuttle, it is better thought of as a satellite capable of, on command from the ground, folding up its solar array and safely re-entering the atmosphere. Ground controllers cannot take over the re-entry flight, but can destroy the craft should it stray from pre-determined safety boundaries.
Gary Payton, US Air Force under-secretary for space programmes, has told Flight International that the goal of the X-37B programme is to be able to land the craft and fly it again less than 10-15 days later: "If we were in a surge environment, where we were putting up a whole bunch of satellites over a month or two, I would like to see the X-37B handle much more like a [Lockheed] SR-71."
The USAF has contracted Boeing to build a second X-37B for delivery this year, but has not yet manifested the vehicle on an Atlas V, and intends to learn what it can from the first craft before pressing the second into service.
• Additional reporting by John Croft in Washington DC and Dan Thisdell in London
SpaceX changes focus on rockets
Falcon 1 work delayed in favor of Falcon Heavy, Dragon capsule
Space X changes focus on rockets: Falcon 1 work delayed in favor of Falcon Heavy, Dragon capsule.
Posted Feb. 18, 2011
Written by PATRICK PETERSON, FLORIDA TODAY
SpaceX and NASA launched this demonstration flight of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 8. SpaceX is stopping work on the Falcon 1 to work on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. / Michael R. Brown, FLORIDA TODAY
SpaceX has delayed development of its single engine Falcon 1 rocket, which has lifted off five times from the Central Pacific, to focus on development of its Dragon capsule that has been contracted to carry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.
The company also plans to speed development of its Falcon Heavy, which could compete with United Launch Alliance for government launches. ULA, which employs about 700 in Brevard County, launches about a dozen rockets a year from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
"The Air Force (Space and Missile Systems Center) in Los Angeles told us that we needed to fly Falcon Heavy and activate our new launch facilities at Vandenberg (AFB) in order to compete for the (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle ) contract currently held by ULA," SpaceX Communications Director Kirstin Brost said.
The Air Force confirmed that it has given SpaceX guidance for developing the Falcon Heavy.
"We do not have a (formal) agreement with SpaceX regarding the development of the vehicle," said an Air Force statement.
The Falcon 1 delay affects up to 18 launches under contract to ORBCOMM, which provides satellite text messaging communications to marine interests services from its constellation of 29 satellites in low earth orbit. Despite the stand-down in production of the Falcon 1, the ORBCOMM launches remain on the manifest published on SpaceX's Web site and have not been canceled.
"We have a contract with ORBCOMM," Brost said.