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X-37B Robotic Space Plane Returns To Earth

Soulskill posted more than 3 years ago | from the down-to-earth dept.

Space 55

Kozar_The_Malignant writes "The secretive X-37B robotic space plane has returned to Earth after a seven-month mission. This was the vehicle's first flight. Looking like a cross between a Predator Drone and the Space Shuttle, it landed at Vandenberg AFB in California, which was to have been the military's shuttle launch facility. Speculation is that the X-37B is an orbital spy platform."

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55 comments

More pics here: (4, Informative)

molo (94384) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438572)

Re:More pics here: (1)

digitalchinky (650880) | more than 3 years ago | (#34442626)

Thanks for the links. I'm wondering why it would be so dirty (burn marks?) on the upper part - on what I assume are the cargo bay doors?

Surely.. (1)

zmollusc (763634) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438602)

..it should read 'Looking like a cross between a space shuttle and another thing, but not a predator drone'?

How did it land? (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34438726)

Was the landing fully automated, or was it manned remotely?

Re:How did it land? (2)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#34440240)

> Was the landing fully automated, or was it manned remotely?

I'm guessing fully-automated, since there's a long period of communication blackout during atmospheric reentry.

And no manned shuttle... (1)

Beelzebud (1361137) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438762)

Pathetic. We're fine dumping billions into a new spybird that none of us will benefit from, but a manned space vehicle? Nope... I guess we're cool with bumming rides off the Russians in their capsule designed in the 60's.

Re:And no manned shuttle... (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438860)

Pathetic. We're fine dumping billions into a new spybird that none of us will benefit from, but a manned space vehicle? Nope... I guess we're cool with bumming rides off the Russians in their capsule designed in the 60's.

The US will have great benefit from a new spybird. And until SpaceX's Dragon is proven, we don't have a cost effective competitor for the Soyuz capsule (even with a monopoly premium).

Re:And no manned shuttle... (1)

cdrguru (88047) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438872)

Expect the "bumming rides" part to last only a year or so... Russia is in no position to be flying missions without massive support (meaning cash) from the USA, and we're in no position to be sending cash to Russia when China would rather us send it to them.

So I would expect the closure of the ISS before the end of Obama's first term. It will be billed as something temporary, just to get by for a short while. Until someone realizes that without a crew making adjustments that it is going to go downhill fast.

Then there will be no reason for anyone from the US to go into space any longer. Maybe the Chinese will buy it, in exchange for some debt forgiveness. We owe them more than can ever be repaid, so this would be a raindrop in an empty bucket.

Re:And no manned shuttle... (1)

Steauengeglase (512315) | more than 3 years ago | (#34441272)

I really don't see Obama trying anything like that. Ours isn't the only interests up there.

Re:And no manned shuttle... (1)

MaWeiTao (908546) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438980)

Why the myopic view? This is a test vehicle. Who's to say they aren't planner a larger, manned version? There's not much a robotic plane can do in space. Take photos? Satellites already do that job. Launch satellites? I would assume using conventional rockets is more efficient and cheaper. And even if this thing never ends up being manned, we're still going to learn a ton of valuable information from it.

Re:And no manned shuttle... (1)

PeterBrett (780946) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439014)

Why the myopic view? This is a test vehicle. Who's to say they aren't planner a larger, manned version? There's not much a robotic plane can do in space. Take photos? Satellites already do that job. Launch satellites? I would assume using conventional rockets is more efficient and cheaper. And even if this thing never ends up being manned, we're still going to learn a ton of valuable information from it.

It's obviously a prototype space fighter designed to shoot down alien spacecraft! That's the real reason it's being built by the USAF and not NASA!

Re:And no manned shuttle... (2)

Penguinshit (591885) | more than 3 years ago | (#34440002)

It's a test bed for a reusable satellite. Make a stock platform which you can de-orbit and upgrade every few years instead of the Shuttle plucking and returning as was originally planned. You can also put one up for temporary missions instead of moving an existing bird.

Re:And no manned shuttle... (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 3 years ago | (#34442858)

I want to go fuck green chicks as much as the next guy, maybe more, but what we need to focus on right now is unmanned technology, because it's economically feasible right now and we live in a capitalist society.

Spy plane makes no sense (3, Interesting)

jollyreaper (513215) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438768)

One of the big "it's not as logical as you'd think" headslappers of the space age is that the cost of launch dwarfs the cost of hardware. The space shuttle made a whole lot of sense with the idea of repairing satellites in space until you realized that with launch costs what they were, it was cheaper to sent up a new sat than fix an old one. The Hubble remains a very special case and I'm sure some people could make a case that it would have been cheaper to build and launch a series of Hubbles with incremental improvements on the usual $100 million a launch expendable vehicles than service it with $500 million a launch shuttles.

Aaaanyway, the only useful mission that fits this flight profile is as a crew transfer vehicle. If it's just a spy sat, why bring it back? Back in the early days the spy sats actually took film and the cannisters were dropped down from orbit. Specially-equipped C-130's had to catch the cannisters before they went in the drink. A flyback cannister could make sense but the sats started beaming back their data yonks ago. The only thing I can think of is if they're trying to test out hardware and need to put the old eyeball on it directly to see how it's fared in space. But we've been doing a pretty good job designing sats without that kind of inspection for a long time. Color me stumped.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

Score Whore (32328) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438818)

Maybe it's the other guy's spy satellite and you want to know what their capabilities are?

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438830)

One of the big "it's not as logical as you'd think" headslappers of the space age is that the cost of launch dwarfs the cost of hardware.

It's also not true. Sure, the Shuttle used to launch a lot of low value hardware way back when, but if you look at commercial launch vehicles (both in the US and overseas), the launch price is usually somewhere around 10-20% of the total launch cost. This is really where launch costs are for serious applications. There's even some Shuttle launches in that price range (such as Hubble's launch or ISS components).

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (5, Interesting)

FTL (112112) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438934)

I agree completely that the X-37 makes no apparent sense. The only argument I can come up with is that returning is just a nice side effect of its real purpose: inclination changes. Chaning altitude and period and phase is all relatively easy with onboard thrusters (and X-37 has an orbital maneuvering engine almost as big as the Space Shuttle's). But the amount of thurst needed to change oribal inclination from, say equatorial to ISS, is vast. I calculated it recently as being equivalent to the delta-v provided by an earth to LEO launch.

What X-37 might be capable of is dipping into the atmosphere, banking, then thrusting back up to orbit. That's exactly what the Air Force's previous space plane was designed to do, the Dyna-soar. Once one has this capability, returning from orbit to a runway landing is a freebie since you already have the wings.

The recently concluded X-37 test flight did not show an inclination change. But look for it on a future flight. This would allow extreme flexability in imaging enemy action at completely unpredictable times.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

Wyatt Earp (1029) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439336)

It doesn't make any sense because we don't know what it did up there.

It might have been accessing other nation's spy satellites and mirroring what they were watching. It might have been a test flight for a orbital strike vehicle, changing orbits and simulating attack missions.

Fact is you and I don't know what its for, but the USAF and the White House know enough about the mission to fund it, so we can't really judge to if it makes sense.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

zmollusc (763634) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439448)

Do we know that an inclination change was not followed by a subsequent inclination change that returned the craft to the original inclination?

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34440184)

Yes. There's not enough volume within the X-37 for the propellant required to do this.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

Confusador (1783468) | more than 3 years ago | (#34441530)

Yes. The amateur community had pretty good tracking on this thing, since it's so fascinating. They only ever lost it for a day or two at a time when it changed altitude.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 3 years ago | (#34440350)

The problem is - current generation spy birds have far more payload capacity (I.E. higher resolution sensors) than the X-37B *and* the ability to change orbital inclination. So, the X-37B doesn't seem to have any advantage there. Not to mention that the 37B is fairly easily trackable if you have a mind to - so any advantage of surprise would be short lived. (And to some extent predictable, it's hard to change your orbit enough to radically change your observation windows.)

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34440756)

One option for a return capability might be that they are intending to carrying things that are too dangerous to jettison...

Chances are its the same mission profile as the original AF space shuttle, atmospheric re-entry doesn't necessary mean landing, it's just an added bonus.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

lazn (202878) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439042)

I first read this as "cost to launch dwarfs" and thought you might be advocating using little people instead of regular sized people as astronauts..

Seems logical to me, if not very PC

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34439230)

It's a nuclear warhead platform. It's cheaper to maintain than a nuclear sub because there's no crew, and each warhead has to have less propellant because they're already in orbit.

Color me stumped.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34442092)

Its the Space Chem Trail program

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

kanto (1851816) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439360)

Something like this could be a quick replace for spysatellites since the technology to destroy/disable satellites with missiles and lasers has become more of an issue. Satellites aren't that maneuverable after all and tracking them due to their repetitive orbit isn't that difficult.

Would be cool if you could put stuff like this in orbit with a cannon, but I guess that's still a long way off.

Spy plane no, combat operations platform yes (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34439414)

High powered lasers need big platforms, and renewable fuel sources. If you wanna shoot down a satelite with a laser, why not use an unmanned platform that can stay in orbit for months (until it needs to expend it's stored energy reserve) then re-enter for refueling it's XX energy cell (or offload spent nuclear devices.)

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (2)

offrdbandit (1331649) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439574)

This project can be summed up quite simply: the military will not allow the future of the US space program to be at the mercy of a fickle political atmosphere.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

ladoga (931420) | more than 3 years ago | (#34442388)

This project can be summed up quite simply: the government will not allow the future of the US to be at the mercy of the people.

Fixed that for you.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34440066)

If you've become aware that any piece of the hardware you're using to receive or transfer information gathered in space may be compromised, then you might have a need to treat some data collected on orbit just like a film canister; returning it for analysis rather than transmitting it about.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (2)

DerekLyons (302214) | more than 3 years ago | (#34440314)

One of the big "it's not as logical as you'd think" headslappers of the space age is that the cost of launch dwarfs the cost of hardware.

Well, no. Except for fairly simple payloads, and payloads like comsats that are built more-or-less on an assembly line basis, the cost of hardware is generally on par with or dwarfs the cost of launches. That's one of the big reasons there's been no particular reason to drive down launch costs. (The extraordinarily low demand being another.)
 

The space shuttle made a whole lot of sense with the idea of repairing satellites in space until you realized that with launch costs what they were, it was cheaper to sent up a new sat than fix an old one.

Well, no, not entirely. The idea was that you economize on your expensive hardware by repairing it with cheap launches - then two things happened that broke that paradigm.
 
First, the Shuttle turned out to be nowhere as cheap as it was thought it might be. Partly because they built it and they didn't come, partly because they couldn't reach the planned flight rates. (Even when they offered subsidized launches, they didn't come.) The latter was/is particularly ruinous because the bulk of the Shuttle programs costs are fixed costs which are incurred regardless of how many times it flies, meaning they were amortized over fewer flights.
 
Second, the digital revolution happened. Technology, and hence capacity and performance, was/is evolving at such a rate that it made less and less economic sense to repair/refurbish existing satellites on orbit. (And the decreasing size, weight, and electrical demand of the electronics meant it was easier to provide redundancy and space capacity.)
 

The Hubble remains a very special case and I'm sure some people could make a case that it would have been cheaper to build and launch a series of Hubbles with incremental improvements on the usual $100 million a launch expendable vehicles than service it with $500 million a launch shuttles.

The problem with that case is that it relies on a whole raft of hidden and questionable assumptions. Like finding a $100 million launcher to launch it on. (There isn't one.) Like relying on Congress to steadily fund a stream of replacements when the old one(s) were still working. (And Congress isn't really too unusual in this respect, it's almost always easier to get money to keep something running than it is to start something new.) Etc... etc...

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (2)

drolli (522659) | more than 3 years ago | (#34441490)

I think it does. If you have special hardware for special observations its better to have a flexible platform. 40 years ago you knew where the spy sattelite should be in the next 20 years (soviet union), what it should do (listen to soviet communications and take photos of bases/harbors), and how that would roughly work (no, the soviet union would not swap their whole communication systems withing a few years).

Nowadays, who knows which country makes the biggest problem in five years, who knows what needs to be done there (listen to GSM networks, listen to military communications, take high-res photos, etc.). And you can always pack the newest hardware. Having a flexible platform makes sense.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34442934)

It's not to flyback US satellites, duh! How else do you propose the US govt covertly steal chinese satellites and hold them ransom in California?!

Or, for that matter, mount big 'Yo mama!' signs in front of the lens on chinese recon satellites! =)

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (2)

vertinox (846076) | more than 3 years ago | (#34444822)

Color me stumped.

No. The answer is obvious.

This shuttle vehicle is designed to retrieve satellites deemed too risky to fall back to earth in any shape or form.

Also... It has the ability to retrieve foreign satellites. This is more of a chilling effect as they seem to want everyone to know they have this ability so before Russia or China decided to send up anything of note in the spy department that they will have to be aware that the Americans can pull it down to find out what makes it tick.

It makes sense this thing is unmanned as such satellites have been known to be able to self destruct if it is believed to be falling back to earth anyways.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

Archimboldo (847057) | more than 3 years ago | (#34453004)

It might be able to retrieve tiny satellites, but it's too small for, say, one of the Key Hole spy satellites.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

hey! (33014) | more than 3 years ago | (#34447342)

Sure, but it wasn't because the people who originally envisioned the Space Shuttle were too stupid to crunch the numbers. What happened is that the illogic of the program crept up on it step by step, often each step was bolstered by impeccable logic.

For example, your reasoning against repairing satellites is based on the cost of a shuttle flight being high; by the goal of the program was to make flying the shuttle cheap. The that waste to be done is to amortize the development costs and support infrastructure over lots and lots of flights.

Then the design was altered to lift the really big payloads the Air Force wanted, and to increase the shuttle's ability to maneuver in the atmosphere so it could return to Vandenberg after a single orbit. Well, the logic of that was impeccable, because (a) these were things NASA would have liked anyway, but were "nice to haves" and (b) the cost would be recouped by having a major user who would pay for lots of launches.

Before the fact, it all made sense. What happened was we cut back on manned space flight so that the planned frequency of space flights didn't happen. The changes needed to meet the Air Force requirements ended up hurting as much as they helped, adding cost and risk to the program.

So, if you'd *known* in advance that the volume wouldn't ever materialize, you'd never have considered a system that ambitious. If you built it at all, it would have been a simpler and therefore likely safer and cheaper system.

In short, having perfect knowledge of the future and how your choices will turn out would lead to better decision making.

Re:Spy plane makes no sense (1)

FurtiveGlancer (1274746) | more than 3 years ago | (#34462812)

Imagine a world where a robotic space plane can capture, refuel and boost your spy satellites, extending their lives indefinitely. For the cost of one launch, you get several effective re-launches. Or, perhaps, changing the orbits of spy satellites at odd intervals to render them less predictable. Possibly, with a combination of mylar, kevlar and aerogel, removing debris from a prime spy sat orbital position.

It can already carry a payload and make it's orbit less than easy to track. It can also launch and return with items that we never thought to put up before, and on relatively short notice (as if an Atlas V can launch on really short notice).

Is it too late to welcome our robotic space plane overlords? Thought so.

Dave... (1)

IronHalik (1568993) | more than 3 years ago | (#34438938)

Dave! I'm home!...

Robotic Space Planes... In Spaaaaace! (1)

HiggsBison (678319) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439034)

I think it all sounds wonderfully Space-Opera-ish. Robotic Space Planes, and espionage, and all. I mean, it's named the "X-37B", fer chrisake! Are they, like, going through Asimov and Clarke's old notebooks or something? Somebody cue the theme music.

Re:Robotic Space Planes... In Spaaaaace! (1)

Gilmoure (18428) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439348)

Looks like that thing from Emergence [wikipedia.org] by David Palmer.

Not the first one (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34439080)

Actually, it's not the first unmanned reentry vehicle. Soviet Buran was probably the first one, even though it was designed to convey manned missions, its maiden flight was fully automated (there was even no life support installed), including reentry and landing, with no external control from land.

Re:Not the first one - Bet FedEx leases Buran 2 (1)

DarkStarZumaBeach (668886) | more than 3 years ago | (#34498858)

Correction: Make that "Unmanned winged and wheeled-landing reentry vehicle."

"Unmanned reentry vehicles" have been going up since German V-2's and landing with parachutes for years.
BTW: Expect Russia to now pull the plans for Buran out of storage and commercialize the airframe with new nav gear for lease to FedEx.

Q: Who else can you trust to overnight deliver spare modules to orbit for the ISS??

SpaceX can deliver crew and cargo for USPS - but there's nothing like a Proton booster stack to put habitat modules into space.

Post-landing videos and photos (2)

FleaPlus (6935) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439114)

A neat video from a thermal camera showing the X-37B immediately after landing, while taxiing down the runway:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTxMbda-j4Q [youtube.com]

There's also a bunch of post-landing photos at the Air Force Space Command's Facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=265891&id=78118717073&l=f24f107baa [facebook.com]

Re:Post-landing videos and photos (1)

jcwayne (995747) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439188)

Okay, so we've got official video on YouTube, pictures posted to Facebook, a press release announcing the return and press coverage all over the place. Can we please stop referring to this as a secret space plane. There may be secret (read: black project) space planes out there, but this isn't one of them.

Re:Post-landing videos and photos (1)

Teun (17872) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439266)

Oh you had a peek at the cargo?

Re:Post-landing videos and photos (1)

jcwayne (995747) | more than 3 years ago | (#34439668)

The current Space Shuttle fleet has been used to launch secret military satellites on several occasions (likely more often than publicly known). The secrecy of the mission/cargo is different from the secrecy of the craft itself.

One question ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34439724)

What's the power source (for 7 months) ? ....

Re:One question ... (1)

asm2750 (1124425) | more than 3 years ago | (#34440484)

Solar cells and batteries, like most space flight systems today.

Meanwhile... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34440602)

Private industry is still barely able to make it into orbit (or whatever optimistic definition they have of orbit this week)...

Step back and enjoy the achievement (1)

TythosEternal (1472429) | more than 3 years ago | (#34444884)

This platform is a thing of beauty--a lot easier to list what it CAN'T be used for that what it can. If it was my toy, I'd start with orbital assembly. Yes, they're probably going to utilize it as an incredibly dynamic observation vehicle and stuff it full of sensors, but the fact that it's now a proven technology (and was up for seven months, with multiple controlled orbit changes!) is a big milestone. We don't see very many leaps forward in space technology now adays, but this is one of them.

NINJA ROBOT SPACE PLANES!!! (1)

The Dodger (10689) | more than 3 years ago | (#34461796)

Anyone who doesn't think that a Robot Space Plane is Cool should not be reading Slashdot! Robot Space Planes are on a par with sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads!

Also, it's no coincidence that the Robot Space Plane returned from orbit in time for Ninja Day. "Unmanned" == invisible crew, and who do we know who can become invisible? Oh yes, it's the Ninjas...

Re:NINJA ROBOT SPACE PLANES!!! -- PIOC?? (1)

DarkStarZumaBeach (668886) | more than 3 years ago | (#34498990)

OH - and let's not forget to mention how Warren AFB lost silo comms and power, while X-37B was in orbit - just weeks after former Warren AFB staff reported a 1960's UFO visit with the same effect.

Q: So, just maybe, pulsed-ion orbital cannons don't exist - and a former NASA administrator doesn't fly in planes that suddenly lose all electrical and engine power over Alaska while fishing with a senator of ill-repute??

"Mr. President, sir, shall that be wide or narrow-beam setting? Stun or well-done?"
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