Thursday, September 27, 2012
X-37B Prepares For Return To Orbit
The highly mysterious X-37B OTV-3 (Orbital Test Vehicle) – which is, essentially, a drone boosted into orbital spaceflight – is being prepared for its third top secret space flight in October. The previous X-37B remained in space for over a year, all while engaging in a mission which was never revealed to the public.
It is hardly surprising to learn that countries like China are concerned about the program along with the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) plans for an even more massive and advanced array of spy satellites The X-37B will be launched into orbit aboard an Atlas 5 rocket out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and according to Air Force spokesperson Major Tracy Bunko, “Preparations for launch at Cape Canaveral have begun.” This flight will be the second for this particular X-37B craft but the third for the X-37B program overall with the last flight orbiting a whopping 469 days in total.
The military is being quiet about their goals for the OTV-3 but based on the last flight more than doubling the previous record, one can expect this latest flight will be quite a long one. The X-37B unmanned space vehicle costs an estimated one billion dollars, weighs in at around 11,000 pounds, and measures 29 feet long and 15 feet wide. While it is launched into space via rocket, it glides back to Earth like a regular plane. The X-37B is receiving increasing attention from secretive government entities. “The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), America’s secret spy satellite agency, has shown interest in using reusable launch vehicles like the X-37B to carry sensors." “Right now the X-37B happens to be the only reusable space plane currently in service by the U.S. military, which narrows the NRO’s options.”
The Air Force is currently considering shifting the X-37B landing site from where the last two flights landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to Kennedy Space Center, which is located near Cape Canaveral. According to Bunko, this could save money and use leftover infrastructure at the Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility by utilizing the “previous space shuttle investments,” according to Leonard David, writing or Space.com.
This is hardly surprising given that there has been a significant stress on the costs associated with the X-37B and Boeing has been promoting the X-37B as a potentially more affordable replacement for the space shuttle.
This brings up the unanswered questions surrounding “why the Air Force needs a new reusable orbiter when contrasted with existing — and cheaper — conventional satellites.” Indeed, it seems like a quite strange thing to be focusing on, unless the pickup truck bed-sized payload bay is designed to do more than we are being told.
This would not be in the slightest bit surprising given the mysteries surrounding the mission that the X-37B is actually designed to carry out. It is also hardly surprising to see the concern amongst nations who might be targeted by such secretive technologies given the apparent lack of a true need for the craft. However, Boeing’s Vice President of Government Space Systems Paul Rusnock claims that the return of this particular X-37B craft to space will show that it is “an affordable space vehicle that can be repeatedly reused.” Questions of cost and need aside, one must wonder what exactly the craft is being used for and why such a thick veil of secrecy must be maintained. It certainly isn’t helping ease the fears of foreign nations nor people in the United States who express concern over the mission of this craft.