X-37B ready for second test flight
By Gayle Putrich
The US Air Force plans to launch the second test flight for the X-37B space plane on 4 March, the service says, provided the weather at Cape Canaveral cooperates.
The Boeing-built 8.8m-long, 4.2m-wide (29ft-long, 14ft-wide) reusable space plane will lift off inside the nose cone of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
The second unmanned aircraft, known as Operational Test Vehicle-2, is expected to stay on orbit for 270 days or more, collecting test data similar to that from the first flight last year and expanding the flight envelope. The test team will also be paying particular attention to the performance of the electromechanical and autonomous landing algorithms, the service says. There will also be fewer cross-range and wind restrictions for the second flight.
"The first flight was focused on vehicle check out and you obviously want to check things more than once," the air force says. "It's still an X-plane, still an experimental test programme."
The only anomaly in the first flight of OTV-1 was a blown tire on landing at Vandenberg AFB in California on 3 December 2010; tire pressure on OTV-2 has been reduced by 15 percent, the air service says.
OTV-1 was launched 22 April 2010 and returned, with its classified payload, after 224 days and nine hours in space.
The air force would not comment on possible payloads for OTV-2 or the partially classified programme's price tag, saying only that funds for the second test launch have already been allocated and were not tied to the Fiscal Year 2012 budget released 14 February or the still-under-debate 2011 budget.
Secret Space Plane Heading Back Into Orbit
By David Axe March 3, 2011 | 2:00 pm
The U.S. Air Force’s most mysterious spacecraft is headed back into orbit after a four-month hiatus. The second copy of the Boeing-built X-37 robotic space plane is slated for launch, atop an Atlas V rocket, from Cape Canaveral in Florida sometime on Friday. Forecasts of bad weather could push the launch to Saturday.
In any event, the blast-off is sure to revive speculation regarding the curious, 29-foot-long spacecraft that lands like an airplane — just like a miniature, unmanned space shuttle.
Nearly a year after the first X-37B launched on its 225-day, orbit-hopping inaugural mission, nobody outside of the Air Force knows exactly what the X-37 is for. That ambiguity has even sparked a minor space race as Russia and China at least threaten to build similar vehicles.
In the wake of the first X-37’s April launch, analysts listed all the things the X-37 is theoretically capable of. It could be a commando transport, a bomber or an orbital spy. It could launch, repair or reposition U.S. satellites in low orbit. It could sneak up and disable or steal enemy satellites. Its pickup-bed-sized payload bay is particularly enticing to observers.
“You can put sensors in there, satellites in there,” said Eric Sterner, from The Marshall Institute. “You could stick munitions in there, provided they exist.”
“I applaud the ingenuity and innovation of some reports,” Richard McKinney, the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, joked during a December press conference. He insisted the 5-ton spacebot merely represents a “capability for a reusable and more effective way to test technology in space and return it for examination.”
“This is a test vehicle … pure and simple,” McKinney said.
But McKinney wouldn’t say what technologies the X-37 might be testing, and why the Air Force seems so attached to the idea of a self-landing, airplane-style space vehicle. After all, with the extra mass of its wings and landing gear, in some ways the X-37 is actually at a disadvantage compared to disposable spacecraft.
“Building this return capability into the space plane adds tons of extra mass compared to maneuvering spacecraft that are not designed to return to Earth,” Laura Grego and David Wright from the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists explained in a blog post. “That large mass penalty makes it more difficult and expensive to get a space plane and its payload into orbit and reduces the amount of maneuvering that it can do with a given amount of fuel.”
Everything the X-37 can apparently do, simpler spacecraft could do better and cheaper, Grego and Wright claimed. Even retrieving experimental items from space is better achieved using a simple capsule and parachute, they insisted.
Despite these criticisms, the Air Force is “really at the beginning of it” with the X-37B, McKinney crowed. The diminutive space bots are likely to stay very busy in coming years, leaving just two possible explanations.
One, the Air Force is stupid and doesn’t realize the X-37 is a second-rate vehicle for mucking about in space.
Or two, the X-37 is capable of something — or a mix of things — we outsiders haven’t yet imagined. Russia and China sure think so.
Photo: Air Force
China's Military Space Surge
By Craig Covault, Aerospace America
Posted Wednesday, March 9, 2011
China's surging military space program is poised to challenge U.S. aircraft carrier operations in the Pacific, as Chinese military spacecraft already gather significant new radar, electrooptical imaging, and signal intelligence data globally.
During 2010, China more than doubled its military satellite launch rate to 12. This compares with three to five military missions launched each year between 2006 and 2009. Since 2006, China has launched about 30 military related spacecraft. Its total of 15 launches in 2010 set a new record for China and for the first time equaled the U.S. flight rate for a given year.
Most U.S. public and media attention has focused on China's occasional manned flights and its maturing unmanned lunar program. But China's military space surge reveals a program where more than half of its spacecraft are like 'wolves in sheep's clothing,' posing a growing threat to U.S. Navy operations in the Pacific. India's navy is also concerned.
"This is a really big deal. These military spacecraft are being launched at a very rapid pace" says Andrew S. Erickson, a Naval War College expert on China's naval and space forces. China is becoming a military space power within a global context." At least three or four different Chinese military satellite systems are being networked to support China's 1,500 km+ range DF-21D antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) program, say U.S. analysts. The DF-21D is being designed to force U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle groups and other large U.S. allied warships to operate hundreds of miles farther away from China or North Korea than they do today.
The ASBM "has undergone repeated tests and has reached initial operational capability," Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command said recently in Tokyo. The new Chinese space capabilities, combined with development of the DF-21D, are already having an effect on the planning of future operations in the Pacific, says Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
"I'm trying to get people to think about how do we use aircraft carriers in a world environment where other countries [China specifically] will have the capability, between their missile and satellite capabilities, to knock out a carrier," Gates said recently at Duke University. "How do you use carriers differently in the future than we've used them in the past?" he asked.
The full article appears in the March 2011 issue of Aerospace America published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).
Secret Space Plane Can’t Hide From Amateur Sleuths
By Noah Shachtman March 30, 2011 | 4:06 pm
The U.S. military likes to be a little sneaky with its robotic space planes. Unlike typical spacecraft, these vehicles can shift their orbits, frustrating the global network of skywatchers who keep track of just about every man-made object rotating the planet.
But the sleuths have their tricks, too. They’ve tracked down the X-37B on its second secret mission. And the information the skywatchers are finding says quite a bit about the classified operations of this mysterious spacecraft.
It took the amateur sleuths nearly a month to hunt down the first X-37B after it launched on its inaugural mission. That’s an eternity in sky-spotting time.
The second time around was easier. The U.S. space plane was discovered just four days after it blasted into orbit, earlier this month. Cape Town, South Africa’s Greg Roberts — “a pioneer in using telescopic video cameras to track spacecraft, chalking up exceptional results over the years,” according to Space.com — spotted this second secret spacecraft, just like he found the first.
The X-37B has generated intense interest, long before it ever left the ground. Boeing originally developed the 29-foot unmanned craft — a kind of miniature Space Shuttle — for NASA. Then, the military took over in 2004, and the space plane went black. Its payloads were classified, its missions hush-hush.
Depending on who you talk to, the space plane could be a prototype commando transport, an orbiting bomber or (most likely) a spy-above-the-skies. It could launch, repair or reposition U.S. satellites in low orbit. It could sneak up and disable or steal enemy satellites. Its pickup-bed-sized payload bay is particularly enticing to observers.
And now, there are observers — plural. Ontario’s Kevin Fetterof filmed the X-37B “gliding past the binary star Eta Serpentis,” according to Space.com, which has video of the flyby. Skywatchers Brad Young, Bill Young, and Alberto Rango have all reported sightings, as well.
You can even see the space plane for yourself: The X-37B is traveling in a slightly elliptical orbit more than 200 miles up, swooping from 43 degrees north latitude to 43 degrees south. (Check the real-time map at n2yo.com.)
That orbit gives some indications about what the space plane is actually doing up there. The typical spy satellite has a polar orbit, which means “it can cover the whole earth, and it can fly over the same spot at the same sun angle each time it comes overhead,” explains Brian Weeden, a former Air Force Space Command officer, now with the Secure World Foundation.
The X-37B, on the other hand, is orbiting around the fat middle of the planet, traveling over the Middle East, Africa, and fair chunk of China. “It means they are giving up global coverage and predictable shadow lengths, but getting more frequent passes,” Weeden says. The orbit lends credence to the idea that the space plane is an orbiting spy.
So does the X-37B’s altitude. It’s flying pretty low — one of the rare orbiters traveling beneath the International Space Station. “The lower you are,” Weeden notes, “the higher resolution you can get in any imagery.”
And the easier you are to spot from the ground.
Photo: U.S. Air Force. Illustration: Scott Madry/International Space University
Micro Spy-Satellite Technology Evolving at RAFAEL
March 30, 2011tamir_eshelNo comments
RAFAEL's LiteSat, a micro-satellite will weigh less than 100 kg to be used for 'Responsive Space Operations' by deploying reconnaissance satellites by airborne or ground launched satellites on missions supporting operational requirements on quick notice. Drawing: Rafael
Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is developing a new micro-satellite concept optimized for future ‘responsive space’ operations, offering tactical users rapid access to high resolution satellite imagery, augmenting aerial recce obtained by aircraft and UAVs.
The core of the system is based on Rafael’s LiteSat design, a new micro-satellite platform designed for a maximum weight of 100kg, facilitating airborne launch methods. Leveraging on relatively low-cost airborne launch (from aircraft such as teh F-15) the concept calls for the deployment of several satellites in a constellation enabling high revisit frequency and rapid ‘Operationally Responsive Space’ deployment ORS.
The satellite is designed to operate in a Low earth Orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 300-350 km for missions lasting up to seven years. Rafael is planning to equip the LiteSat with an EO payload offering ‘sub-metric’ resolution, with the same mission management, image processing, enhancement and optimization handled by field deployable IMILITE imagery processing systems currently supporting aerial recce and UAV platforms.
The Litesat platform is designed with ultra-light structures manufactured by Rafael’s space qualified composite material labs. The company has also developed lightweight propulsion methods, based on cold gas and elctrical propulsion (HAL effect), facilitating long operation using minimal fuel storage.
© 2011 defense-update.com
Russia Interested in Israel’s Evolving Microsatellites
March 30, 2011tamir_eshelNo comments
Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos. Photo: Novosti
Microsatellite technology developed by Israel’s aerospace and defense industries is one of several fields of interest to Russia Space s is one of the areas the Russians are interested in – said Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian Space Agency Roscosmos headon a visit to Israel last week. “Bilateral cooperation in outer space was at the initial stage and involved efforts to establish contacts between Russian and Israeli companies in the rocket and space industry.” Perminov arrived in Israel to sign a cooperation agreement on the exploration and use of outer space.
The framework agreement is meant to foster joint research programs and other collaborations in areas like astrophysical and planetary research, space biology and medicine, navigational satellites and launching services and technology. It also outlines guidelines for cooperation in intellectual property and scientific exchanges. Israel has already embarked on similar agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the space agencies of France and Italy.
Israeli-Russian cooperation in space has already taken place with several programs in recent years, including the launch of two EROS commercial reconnaissance satellites operated by Imagesat and three communications satellites. Israel’s satellite communications company Spacecom will also use a Russian built communications satellite Amos 5 to extend its services over the Middle East and Africa.
IAI and Rafael are both developing ‘mini’ and ‘micro’ satellites, the Mini satellites weighing around 250-300 kg each with ‘microsatellites’ weighing up to 100 kg each. Development of remote sensing for earth explorations using ‘advanced resolution’ imagery is also an area of interest for the Russians.
© 2011 defense-update.com
Military in Space: Less Money, More Junk to Track
April 13, 2011
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The future of the U.S. military space program will include tight budgets, complicated demands and increasing threats from orbiting debris and anti-satellite weapons, an Air Force general and a Pentagon official predicted Tuesday.
"Dependence on space is high, higher than it's ever been, for sure, in the Department of Defense," Gen. William Shelton, head of the Air Force Space Command, said at the National Space Symposium.
Shelton said he expects no increases in his budget, while demands for critical services such as the Global Positioning System, which is run by the Air Force, won't decline.
GPS uses satellite signals to pinpoint the location of receivers on Earth. It has become essential not only to thousands of military weapons, ships and aircraft but for civilian uses in cellphones, cars and aviation, fostering a $110 billion industry, Shelton said.
"Nobody's going to relieve us of that responsibility," he said.
With the military space program facing flat budgets, Shelton told space contractors at the symposium that the Defense Department and industry must find a way to contain costs, especially on launches.
Another concern is "counterspace" threats to satellites from the ground or space, he said. Shelton didn't elaborate, but China has demonstrated the ability to knock out an object in space, destroying one of its own satellites with a missile in 2007.
Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said China is developing a range of other space capabilities, including lasers and devices to jam satellite signals.
"We watch the Chinese very carefully," Schulte said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
"We want to engage the Chinese. We want to talk to them about the responsible use of space, but at the same time we also want to deter them and others from thinking that they would benefit from attacking our space systems."
The United States is also working with the European Union and other nations to develop a space code of conduct to reduce the risk of creating more debris, Schulte said.
The military currently tracks about 21,000 objects in orbit, including active satellites and human-made debris from dead satellites and spent rockets.
That number is expected to triple by 2030, partly because improved sensors will be able to pick up smaller objects that are currently undetectable, but also because of new debris, some created when existing pieces collide and break into more, smaller pieces, Shelton said.
The U.S. is taking steps to reduce the amount of space trash it creates, he said.
"In fact, if the Air Force wants to launch a satellite and it's going to leave some debris in space, they have to come to the deputy secretary of defense and ask for an exemption to do that and explain why they're doing it," Shelton said.
© Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
USAF: SBIRS Can Gather Intelligence
By DAVE MAJUMDAR
Published: 12 Apr 2011 20:17
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The U.S. Air Force's troubled Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) satellite is the first national security spacecraft to be certified by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency for technical intelligence work, a service official told reporters April 12.
SBIRS was designed to post hostile ballistic missile launches, but its sensors turned out to be sensitive enough for intel work, said Brig. Gen. Roger Teague, who heads the Air Force Infrared Space Systems Directorate.
"We're seeing things we never expected to see before," Teague told reporters at the National Space Symposium here.
The Air Force hopes to launch the much-delayed satellite May 6.
Teague said the system also can be used to provide battlefield situational awareness information to ground forces in real time.
Particularly useful is the satellite's ability to "stare" at a wide geographic area for a long time from its geosynchronous orbit, Teague said.
Additionally, the satellite can see much "dimmer" targets than previous missile-warning satellites.
"One of the important assessments and projects associated with that, as an example, was a military utility assessment," Teague said.
While most of the missions are classified, one unclassified example is that the satellite can be used to spot forest fires, which was never envisioned for the program.
Standard Interface Vehicle Offers Mass Production
By DAVE MAJUMDAR
Published: 13 Apr 2011 07:18
The U.S. Air Force's Space Test Program has launched what could be a pioneering development in the annals of military spacecraft, the Standard Interface Vehicle.
Built by the Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., the experimental satellite, which went into orbit last November, is designed around a standardized space vehicle and standard interfaces for its payloads.
"We wanted to build a bus where we could have standard interfaces and basically get into a production line mentality, rather than building a new bus every time we built a new spacecraft," said Col. Carol Welsch, commander of the Space Development Group, speaking before reporters at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., on April 12.
Additionally, the craft is designed to be launched from a variety of rockets and to be stored for extended periods if need be.
"I believe that this could very well serve as a model for future acquisitions, we have learned quite a bit about the value of the production line approach," Welsch said.
Idea is to keep the production line going, she said.
Having a standard spacecraft design and standard interfaces allows for a level of mass production. Typically, most satellite programs build individual spacecraft as one-off boutique items even if the machines are ostensibly of the same design.
The idea of a low- cost satellite that has adequate performance and can be built in quantity is consistent with comments earlier in the day from Air Force Space Command chief Gen. William Shelton about the future of U.S. space capabilities. "Good enough" would trump perfection, he said.
The standard interfaces onboard the experimental satellite are not perfect for any one application, but offer an "adequate" level of performance.
Ball Aerospace has built the second spacecraft and is building a third spacecraft, said Dave Kaufman, the company's senior manager for the Space Test Program- Standard Interface Vehicle. The cost of the second vehicle has dropped by 28 percent, falling from roughly $50 million for the first vehicle to the $30 million for the second satellite. The machine was completed in less than 47 days, Kaufman said.
Three experimental payloads were integrated in on second satellite in four days.
The plan calls for the production of six vehicles.
USAF Eyes 'Disaggregation' For Future Sats
Apr 21, 2011
By Amy Butler
After years of attempts by the U.S. intelligence and defense space communities to jointly develop satellites to serve their diverse needs, an amicable divorce appears to be under way as the two communities explore future constellation architectures.
And they appear to be taking vastly different architectural approaches.
The Pentagon, which supplies satellite services for deployed forces, is exploring the concept of “disaggregation” or “passive resilience”— distributing its space-based capabilities across more platforms.
The National Reconnaissance Office, which develops and operates U.S. classified satellites, is taking a different approach. Though the NRO often deploys small experimental systems, the preponderance of its requirements will likely continue to be met with very large, highly capable and expensive satellites, says U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Susan Mashiko, deputy NRO director.
While Air Force Space Command and others are exploring new ways to provide long-standing services—including missile warning, communications and space situational awareness—there is a deliberate push not to lose sight of the need to execute today’s programs in the near term.
These projects—the Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs), Wideband Global Satcom, Advanced Extremely High Frequency system and others—came at high cost in the past 15 years of technical and management challenges. Officials are loath to squelch those investments by abruptly embracing a new architecture and plunging into new designs.
So the increased talk by senior Pentagon officials at last week’s 27th National Space Symposium here about disaggregation is likely the beginning of a long process to deliberately reshape constellations. “The die is cast for the next 10-15 years just because of the development timelines, . . . but there is an opportunity right now to start to turn this ship,” says Gen. William Shelton, Air Force Space Command chief. “I am absolutely convinced there are better ways to do the mission we are charged with doing. . . . I’m more right now thinking of disaggregation, not aggregation.”
There has been sporadic interest in crafting a distributed satellite network, but there has also been little impetus to embrace it. Partly due to the high cost of launch, the Defense Department has continued to build small numbers of very large, sophisticated and expensive satellites. For the foreseeable future, the cost of launch will not change.
But two major factors are changing. Downward pressure on the federal budget may force the Pentagon to get creative and abandon the sophisticated designs of the past. Perhaps more compelling for defense officials is the sharp increase in the number of operators in space, making it more difficult and dangerous to operate there. The vulnerability of satellites, many costing well over $1 billion, to orbital debris, jamming or an antisatellite weapon has increased.
The disaggregation concept calls for a distributed architecture that can execute the majority of its mission even if one satellite is compromised. It can be achieved by fielding more satellites or more payloads hosted on non-defense platforms or devising alternate data paths.
In addition, to address the increased threat and reduced funding, Pentagon officials are exploring how to simplify satellite designs, which goes hand in hand with disaggregated architectures, defense officials say.
The Pentagon is buying hosted UHF communications payloads now, but that is due to urgent need, not a strategic bent toward producing a new architecture.
These two new approaches could play out more deliberately in the missile-warning and -tracking arena in the next decade. The Missile Defense Agency will pursue a simpler design for its next space-based missile-tracking system than the two Northrop Grumman Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) satellites now conducting a demonstration in space.
MDA’s choice was based on a recommendation from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which leads the study of design options for the follow-on Precision Tracking Space System (PTSS).
Two Northrop Grumman satellites are designed with both target acquisition and tracking sensors made by Raytheon. Together, the sensors were designed and have proven the ability to conduct “birth-to-death” tracking of ballistic missiles. “It is actually showing that the space layer can contribute birth-to-death tracking,” says Doug Young, vice president of missile defense and warning programs at Northrop. “It is causing folks to really rethink BMD possibilities.” During one exercise last month, the satellites proved “stereo tracking”—or passing off target tracking from one satellite to another.
While the STSS acquisition sensor is designed to detect a hot missile plume in the shortwave infrared (IR) bands, the tracking sensor is optimized to follow a cold warhead during its difficult-to-detect midcourse of flight using mid- and longwave detectors. This requires multiple onboard focal planes and telescopes.
For PTSS, however, MDA is opting to forgo target acquisition, and design a satellite for tracking only, to reduce the price and risk for development. This will drive MDA toward improved communications and networking for offboard cueing.
APL has issued six subcontracts—to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Ball Aerospace, and Orbital Sciences Corp.—for final design input, but an acquisition and manufacturing plan is not yet firm. APL will likely design and build the first two development satellites, and up to 10 more could be produced by industry. Though launch was originally planned for 2014, it is now expected in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon could eventually shift to a disaggregated architecture for the IR missile-warning mission beyond Sbirs. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin is slated to build four Sbirs geosynchronous birds and two more are expected to be purchased through a block buy approach. But senior defense officials argue there is still opportunity for a parallel disaggregation strategy without terminating Sbirs purchases.
Technology for wide-field-of-view focal plane arrays needed for a future missile-warning system is maturing. Raytheon is among the companies developing these arrays, partly because the Pentagon funded a parallel sensor path for fear Sbirs would crater. But, without some assurance that continued company funding will eventually come to fruition in a formal government program, Raytheon will have to consider leaving the market, says Tom McDonald, a director at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.
Raytheon is proposing a modular approach to future space-based missile-warning and -tracking. Building off of its Responder modular satellite concept, the company is proposing a missile-warning toolkit. The concept calls for common-use components—such as processors, cryocoolers and telescopes—mated with specialized focal plane arrays optimized for a particular mission, such as short-wave IR for missile warning and longwave IR for missile tracking.
Meanwhile, a select group of contractors could pair up for work, if the Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman team loses its grip on the early missile-warning mission now occupied by Sbirs. Northrop Grumman and Boeing executives have quietly signaled they would be interested in priming a future team, though Northrop now officially supports the Lockheed-led Sbirs program because its Asuza, Calif., facility builds the payload.
Other potential payload providers include Raytheon and Goodrich.
WGS2 image: Air Force Space Command