Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Lands After 718 Days in Orbit

The Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane landed at the Kennedy Space Center’s orbiter runway on Sunday, May 7, after spending a record 718 days in orbit. This was the fourth flight of the uncrewed, autonomous military project, and was the first landing for an X-37B at KSC.

“The landing of OTV-4 marks another success for the X-37B program and the nation,” said Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen, X-37B program manager. “This mission once again set an on-orbit endurance record and marks the vehicle’s first landing in the state of Florida. We are incredibly pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and are excited about the data gathered to support the scientific and space communities. We are extremely proud of the dedication and hard work by the entire team.”

The mini space shuttle launched on May 20, 2015 on its somewhat clandestine mission. The launch was well publicized (and shown live on a webcast) but the landing came unannounced, except for the sonic boom that heralded its arrival, surprising those living around the space coast area.

The Air Force revealed before the launch that it would carry an experimental electric propulsion thruster to be tested in orbit and an investigation called Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS), which exposes sample materials to the space environment and builds on more than ten years of similar research on the International Space Station.

Beyond that, however, what the X-37B did in orbit is not known. The Air Force said in a news release is that mini shuttle is “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.” Some experts has said they believe it has intelligence-gathering equipment.

Technicians work on the Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 4, which landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida May 7, 2017. Credit: Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs.

Satellite-tracking enthusiasts were able to monitor the ship’s changing orbital height at various times throughout the mission.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and the NASA space shuttles. The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

Note: In the above video you’ll see a “big” NASA space shuttle sitting near the runway. It is the mockup of a space shuttle that used to be at the entrance of the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex. It is currently being restored.

All four OTV missions launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and previous missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV spent 468 days on orbit, and the third mission was 674 days long.

The Air Force said they are preparing to launch the fifth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, later in 2017.

Sources: Air Force, Spaceflight Now, US Air Force Twitter.

Fabulous Florida Nighttime Blastoff Delivers Highest-Capacity US Air Force Satcom to Orbit

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-37 at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-37 at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The highest-capacity US Air Force communications system thundered to orbit during a fabulous nighttime blastoff from the Florida Space Coast, Wednesday evening offering a picture perfect spectacle in addition to a significant boost to military point to point communications.

Hordes of spectators lined space coast beaches and viewing areas to witness the dinnertime launch of the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-8) mission for the U.S. Air Force on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Medium+ rocket at 6:53 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016.

The on time Delta liftoff took place from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at the opening of the 49 minute long launch window.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Thank you to the U.S. Air Force and industry team whose flawless execution enabled today’s successful launch of the WGS-8 mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services, in a statement.

“Last week ULA celebrated our anniversary and 10 years of 100% mission success. This evening’s launch epitomizes why our customers continue to entrust ULA to deliver our nation’s most crucial space capabilities.”

WGS-8 was delivered to a supersynchronous transfer orbit atop the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Medium+ rocket.

WGS-8 is the first in a newly upgraded series of a trio of WGS satellites built by Boeing that will nearly double the communications bandwidth of prior WGS models.

The major upgrade is inclusion of the Wideband Digital Channelizer, awarded to Boeing in June 2012.

“Boeing’s eighth Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellite will provide nearly twice as much communications bandwidth as previous WGS satellites due to an upgraded digital payload,” said Boeing in a statement.

The Wideband Digital Channelizer will provide a 90 percent improvement in satellite bandwidth for US military forces.

“Using leading commercial digital circuit technology, the newly upgraded satellite will aid in fulfilling the increasing demand for high-data rate communications of warfighters around the globe.”

WGS-8 was also built for a significantly cheaper price compared to the prior WGS series. WGS-8 cost about $426 million vs. about $570 million for the WGS 7 satellite.
“Not only does WGS-8’s cutting edge digital payload nearly double the satellite’s bandwidth, but the U.S. government was able to realize more than $150 million in savings for WGS-7 through WGS-10 through fixed-price block purchases and commercial operating practices,” said Dan Hart, Boeing vice president, Government Satellite Systems, in a statement.

“We’ve been able to both increase the capability and reduce the per-unit cost with each new WGS satellite we’ve delivered, making WGS, by far, the most cost-effective asset for military communications.”

The 217 foot tall Delta IV Medium+ rocket launched in the (5,4) configuration with a 5 meter diameter payload fairing and powered by one common booster core and four solid rocket motors built by Orbital ATK to augment the first stage.

The common booster core was powered by an RS-68A liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine producing 705,250 pounds of thrust at sea level. A single RL10B-2 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine powered the second stage.

The booster and upper stage engines are both built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. ULA constructed the Delta IV Medium+ (5,4) launch vehicle in Decatur, Alabama.
The is the sixth flight in the Medium+ (5,4) configuration; all of which were for prior WGS missions.

ULA Delta IV rocket poised for blastoff with the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Dec. 7, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Delta IV rocket poised for blastoff with the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Dec. 7, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

WGS-8 also counts as the first of three launches from the Cape this December. A Pegasus XL rocket will launch on Dec. 12 carrying NASA’s CGYNSS hurricane monitoring satellites. And an Atlas V will launch on Dec. 12 with the EchoStar 23 comsat.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

X-51 Waverider ‘Scramjet’ Test Flight Fails

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A highly anticipated test flight of the X-51A Waverider scramjet ended abruptly after the experimental aircraft suffered a control failure and broke apart during an attempt to fly at six times the speed of sound. The test flight took place off the coast of California and the X-51A was dropped from a B-52 bomber, but an US Air Force spokesman said that a faulty control fin prevented it from starting its unique “airbreathing” scramjet engine.

The X-51 Waverider program is a cooperative effort of the Air Force, DARPA, NASA, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. The Air Force is hoping this type of technology would be successful enough to eventually be used for more efficient transport of payloads into orbit and the Pentagon has touted its ability to deliver strikes around the globe within minutes.

The craft was carried to about 15,240 meters (50,000 ft.) by a B-52 from Edwards Air Force Base in California, and was dropped over the Pacific Ocean. Designers were hoping the Waverider would reach Mach 6 or more.

The scramjet (short for “supersonic combustion ramjet”) is an air-breathing engine, where intake air blows through its combustion chamber at supersonic speeds. The engine has no moving parts, and the oxygen needed by the engine to combust is taken from the atmosphere passing through the vehicle, instead of from a tank onboard, making the craft smaller, lighter and faster. Some designers have predicted it could reach speeds of anywhere from Mach 12 to Mach 24. Mach 24 is more than 29,000 km/hour (18,000 miles per hour.) This could cut an 18-hour trip to Tokyo from New York City to less than 2 hours.

But the concept has had limited success.

In May 2010, the first test of the vehicle had sort of a “successful” flight of 200 seconds of autonomous flight, which set a duration record for an aircraft powered by a scramjet engine. However, another test in 2011 failed, which was attributed to another design flaw.

A statement put out by the Air force said officials will conduct a rigorous evaluation of the test to assess all the factors behind the failure.

Secretive X-37B Space Plane Will be Landing Soon

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After nearly 15 months on a secret mission, the Air Force’s X-37B, an unmanned, reusable space plane, will soon be coming back home. A news release from the Vandenberg Air Force Base says the landing is expected to occur during the early- to mid-June timeframe, although the exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations. The mini space plane has been in orbit since March 5, 2011.

This is the second mission of the Orbital Test Vehicles to fly in the X-37B program with the second space plane, OTV-2. The first X-37B mission flew in 2010, spending 224 days in space. This original vehicle has been refurbished and is scheduled to go back into space for another mission sometime in October of this year.

As for the second space plane, its long mission has been termed a success, although no mission specifics have been released. It launched on March 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Since then, the press release said, Vandenberg crews have conducted extensive, periodic training in preparation for landing.

“The men and women of Team Vandenberg are ready to execute safe landing operations anytime and at a moment’s notice,” said Col. Nina Armagno, 30th Space Wing commander. The space professionals from the 30th Space Wing will monitor the de-orbit and landing of the vehicle.

Seen here is the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, compared with proposed X-37C crewed vehicle, the space shuttle and the Atlas V booster that is currently used to launch the OTV. Image Credit: AIAA/Grantz/Boeing

The mini spaceplane is 8.8 meters (29 feet) long with a wing span of 4.2 meters (14 feet). It can weigh up to about 5,000 kg (11,000 pounds) fueled for launch. The reported in-space design life is 270 days, but sources say that good performance on this mission enabled ground controllers to keep it aloft significantly longer.

While no news of its orbital parameters have been released, skywatchers and amateur satellite trackers have been keeping an eye on where the OTV-2 has been. After launch it had a 331 km (206-mile)orbit inclined 42.8 degrees to the equator, but in the summer of 2011 the orbit was raised slightly to 337 km (209 miles).

Vandenberg said they would provide more details when available.

Source: Vandenberg AFB

Secret Mini Space Shuttle Could Land on Friday

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The US Air Force announced that the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a miniature, unmanned space shuttle could return to Earth as soon as this Friday, December 3. It has been in Earth orbit for about nine months on a classified mission for the military. It will land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Los Angeles sometime between Friday and Monday, Air Force officials said in a statement. The exact time of touchdown will depend on weather conditions and technical factors.

Preparations for the landing began on Tuesday, the Air Force Space Command said. The backup landing site would be Edwards Air Force Base.

The X-37B launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 22. It was built by Boeing, and the vehicle looks like a space shuttle orbiter, but is much smaller: at 9 meters long and 4.5 meter wide (29 X 15 ft), with a payload bay that is 2.1 by 1.2 meters (7 by 4 feet) the X-37B is about 1/4th the size of a shuttle.

Launch of the X37-B. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today

The X-37B uses solar arrays and lithium ion batteries to generate power instead of fuel cells like the space shuttle, a major reason why it can stay on orbit for much longer.

Originally the vehicle was scheduled for launch in from the payload bay of the Space Shuttle, but that plan was axed following the Columbia accident.

The X-37B’s mission is to “demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force,” according to a fact sheet put out by the military. “Objectives of the OTV program include space experimentation, risk reduction and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”

It will be interesting to see if the military will share any of the on-orbit activities of the space plane and what capabilities and uses this vehicle might have in the future.

See our previous article “What is the Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Doing in Orbit?” for more information.

Source: Air Force Space Command

‘Secret’ X-37B Space Plane Disappears Again

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The game between the United States Air Force and amateur satellite trackers continues: the unmanned X-37B space plane – a classified project of the Air Force – has changed orbit once again, leaving those that monitor the flyovers of the space plane scrambling to locate it once again.

The X-37B was launched on April 22nd, 2010 on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and has been orbiting the Earth ever since. During the period between July 29th and August 14th of this year, the plane changed its orbit and forced the amateurs that monitor the satellite to find it again, and recalculate its orbital path. According to Spaceweather.com yesterday, the X-37B has once again changed its location. It did not pass over at the expected time on the nights of October 7th and October 9th.

Possibilities for this latest change in orbit include a simple maneuvering test or change in the current testing phase of the plane, or the potential that it is finally about to land. The gallium arsenide solar panels on the craft should allow it to stay in space for up to 270 days, but it has only been 173 days since the launch.

The X-37B is controlled remotely, and can automatically land. Once this flight is over, it will land at either the Vandenberg Air Force Base or the Edwards Air Force Base, both located in California.

Not much has been said about the the secret project by the Air Force. Started at NASA in 1999, the automated space plane was handed over to the Pentagon in 2004. This initial flight of the X-37B is billed as a test of the craft by the Air Force. Here’s its description according to the Air Force fact sheet:

“The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is a non-operational system that will demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The objectives of the OTV program include space experimentation, risk reduction and a concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”

Of course, there has been much speculation about whether this constitutes the “weaponization of space”, since it is, after all, a project of the Air Force instead of NASA. To put your mind at ease, here’s a link to an analysis of potential uses of the X-37B by former Air Force officer Brian Wheeden, who is now a Technical Adviser to the Secure World Foundation. He places the likelihood that the space plane could be used as a weapon at zero, but its capabilities as an orbital spy platform are feasible.

If you want a comprehensive look into the history and the possible uses of the X-37B, there is a lengthy article over at Air & Space by associate editor Michael Klesius.

There’s also a video up on Space.com by satellite tracker Kevin Fetter of Brockville, Ontario showing a flyover of the plane.

We’ll keep you posted as to when the X-37B is recovered by amateurs, if it has landed, or in the unlikely event that the Air Force decides to release any information about its current mission.

Source: Spaceweather.com

What is the Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Doing in Orbit?

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Last month’s launch of the US Air Force X-37B secret mini space plane has fueled speculation about the real mission of this vehicle and if it could possibly be used for a new type of military weapon. The X-37B launched on April 22, 2010 and has the ability to stay in orbit for up to 270 days. While the Air Force provided a webcast of the launch, since then there has been no word — leaked or official – about the status of the mission. “There has been a lot of speculation about what this vehicle could do and what sort of capabilities it could provide to the U.S. military, and some of that speculation was based on more science fiction than fact,” said Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation. “While a successful completion of the X-37B flight, landing, and turn-around will certainly be a significant step forward in reusable space vehicle technology, it is a long ways away from a single-stage-to-orbit capability.”


Weeden has put together a fact sheet on the X-37B, looking at the technical feasibility of some of the proposed missions for the mini space shuttle look-alike, and says that there’s almost no chance it could be used as a new weapon or a new weapon delivery system.

The X-37B will land unpiloted at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It uses solar arrays and lithium ion batteries to generate power instead of fuel cells like the space shuttle, a major reason why it can stay on orbit for much longer.

Artist impression of the Boeing X-37B (USAF)

Weeden said that after looking at all the proposed missions for the X-37B, he concluded the most likely probability is that it will be used as a flexible, responsive spacecraft to collect intelligence from space and as a platform to flight test new sensors and satellite hardware.

“One of the downsides to using satellites for collecting intelligence is that once they are launched they have a fixed set of sensors and capabilities,” Weeden said. “The X-37B brings to space the capability to customize the on-board sensor package for a specific mission, similar to what can be done with U.S. reconnaissance aircraft such as the U-2 and SR-71. In many ways, this gives the X-37B the best of both worlds,” he added.

Here’s a brief look at the potential uses for the X-37B:

On-orbit sensor platform and test bed, with the ability to return payload. “What it offers that we have seldom had is the ability to bring back payloads and experiments to examine how well the experiments performed on-orbit,” said Gary Payton, the undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs. “That’s one new thing for us.”

Given the R&D that likely was put into the X-37B, this approach probably isn’t very cost-effective, but Weeden said this is the most likely use the spaceplane. X-37B payload bay could hold various sensors used for intelligence collection of the Earth from space, potentially including radar, optical, infrared, and signals/electronic intelligence suites to flight-test and evaluate new sensors and hardware.

Deployment platform for operationally responsive space satellites. Weeden said this has a midrange chance of being X-37B’s mission, and he quotes Payton: “We could have an X-37 sitting at Vandenberg or at the Cape, and on comparatively short notice, depending on warfighter requirements, we could put a specific payload into the payload bay, launch it up on an Atlas or Delta, and then have it stay in orbit, do the job for the combatant commander, and come back home. And then the next flight, we could have a different payload inside, maybe even for a different combatant commander.”

But given it still would be dependent on the availability of EELV, it may not have a very quick response time for launch.

On-orbit repair vehicle. Weeden said this option has a fairly low chance of being X-37B’s real mission. While it could be used to rendezvous with malfunctioning satellites and repair or refuel them, the X-37B is limited in altitude (it has been rumored that it will have a maximum altitude range of 700 or 800 km (about 500 nautical miles), potentially high enough to access most Sun-synchronous satellites, but this is unconfirmed, plus not many existing operational military satellite components will fit in the X-37B cargo bay. And as the engineers who tried to figure out how to fix the Hubble Space Telescope robotically, without humans, on-orbit repair is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Launch of the X37-B. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today

On-orbit inspection of satellites. This option has a low potential, as well. The X-37B could be used to rendezvous and inspect satellites, either friendly or adversary, and potentially grab and de-orbit satellites. However, the X-37B cargo bay is much smaller than many operational satellites, and most of the space in the bay is likely to be filled by the required robotic arm and other gear.

Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) weapon or delivery system. Weedend says that chance of this being X-37B’s mission is zero. It could be launched in response to a pending crisis and remain on orbit for a length of time to respond to high value/very time sensitive targets. However, since the X-37B re-enters like the space shuttle and lands at an estimated 200 mph (321 kph), this means it travels in the atmosphere much slower than a ballistic arc or a hyperkinetic weapon, so it would need to carry conventional explosives to do any significant damage. Also, after re-entry would be a slow moving, not-very-maneuverable glide bomb, easy prey for any air defense system along its path to the target.

For more information, a four-page, fact-filled X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Fact Sheet is now available on Secure World Foundation’s website.

Source: Secure World Foundation, special thanks to Leonard David.

Mini Space Shuttle Launches on Secret Mission

A secret Air Force space plane launched on an Atlas V Thursday night at 7:52 p.m. EDT (2352 GMT) on a classified mission. The vehicle, the umanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, looks like a mini space shuttle and has the capability to remain in orbit for 270 days. The purpose of this vehicle – for this mission and for the future – is unknown, but the Air Force says this newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft will demonstrate autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.

Although the mission is secret, the launch was open to the media and was webcast live by the United Launch Alliance, and included live Twitter updates from the Air Force Space Command. Shortly after main engine cutoff, however, the webcast ended and no more updates were provided about the rocket and the vehicle’s activities.

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The mission duration has not been disclosed, but the Air Force said technologies to be tested during the flight include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, reusable insulation and lightweight electromechanical flight systems.

Liftoff occurred on time; and the stages separated 4 minutes and 31 seconds into the flight, and engine cutoff came at about 17 minutes after launch.

X-37B. Credit: US Air Force

The X-37B is 9 meters long and 4.5 meter wide (29 X 15 ft) and its payload bay is 2.1 by 1.2 meters (7 by 4 feet). The vehicle was built at Boeing Phantom Works, based on an orbital and re-entry demonstrator design initially developed by NASA, then handed over to the Pentagon.

Rumors of an X-37B launch have been circulating since 2008.

Originally the vehicle was scheduled for launch in from the payload bay of the Space Shuttle , but that plan was axed following the Columbia accident.

Comparing the X-37B to the space shuttle, the orbiters 56 meters (184 feet) long, has a wingspan of 23 meters (78 feet), and weighs 2 million kg (4.5 million pounds.)

The space shuttle can haul payloads up to 29,500 pounds, while the OTV can only handle up to 226 kg (500 pounds.)

The X37-B will land on a runway in California and will be controlled remotely from the ground. In the future, the Air Force said they hope to conduct experiments and rendezvous with other spacecraft.

See our preview article about the X37-B.

Enjoy more launch images from Alan Walters:

Launch of the X37- B. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.
Launch of the X37-B. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today