Second X-37B Space Plane is Now on Orbit

Well, it’s official, the Air Force’s second X-37B mystery space plane took to the heavens yesterday afternoon to do who-knows what for the next few months.

The second Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle lifted off aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 5:46 p.m., yesterday, according to a Boeing announcement.

Still, there are no details as to what type of tests the experimental spacecraft will be doing while on low Earth orbit. Here’s a nice vague statement about the  Boeing statement:

“Today, we took another important step with the successful launch of the second OTV, enabling the [Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office] to further experiment with the vehicle and its ability to operate in low-Earth orbit,” Cooning continued. “Close teamwork between the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the United Launch Alliance Atlas team, and the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station made this launch a success.”

However, there is one little hint at what the air service is doping with the craft. The announcement goes on to say that the two X-37Bs are being used to develop concepts of operations, or CONOPS, for this type of reusable space planes. This says that the Air Force might be trying, or simulating, just about every type of mission it can think the little robo-shuttles could be used for and developing blueprints for how to execute those missions in the future. What are those missions? Well, until the Air Force lets us know, we can only speculate.

  • nraddin

    I am more interested in the cost and turn around time to orbit for the vehicle. What it’s doing on those missions is really limited only to imagination and payload. The million dollar question in my mind is, how cheap/fast can we do it?

    • I don’t know about the cost but the Space Shuttle was originally intended to have a turn around time of two weeks. In real life it takes about 8 weeks for the Shuttle. Plus there is a question of how many launch vehicles are available, those have to be built or be in stock for each launch as they are not recoverable.

      As with anything if we do it along and in great numbers it will get cheaper.

  • jamesb101

    but it IS a space ship…NOT a flying telephone booth capsule….

  • jamesb101

    He, he, he……

  • STemplar

    I still say its for a prompt redundancy in space ops. When the Chinese shot down their weather satellite all the talk was how vulnerable the US is if we are denied space access. I bet this is to address that primarily.

  • STemplar

    By carrying extra ones to replace those lost or payloads that can act is the same fashion on command.

  • crazy

    Kind of looks like what a next generation ISR platform might look like if you wanted it to fly in low earth orbit. If Global Hawk is the logical follow-on to the U-2 then this would be a logical follow-on to the SR-71, wouldn’t it?

  • christof

    Perhaps it can rendezvous with enemy satellites and install some hardware that allows the US to alter their images.

  • Oblat

    >What are those missions? Well, until the Air Force lets us know, we can only speculate.

    Perhaps they are for delivering ice-cream ?

    I get it a story about a dog-eared prototype replacement for the shuttle disaster is pretty boring. But trying to jazz it up is just silly.

    NASA has imploded the shuttle scrapped largely because pentagon interference in it’s design screwed it from the start and now the DoD is cobbling together a cut down mini-shuttle built out of an old NASA program.

    So what no capabilities do you get for a cut down shuttle prototype ? That still cant go to high orbit and looks like about as reusable based on the slow turn around time and still carries the failed tile heat -sheld concept ? – a lot less.

    On the plus side making it a secret program means the budget can blow out again the milestones can ll be missed and you don’t have to tell anyone.

  • Snake Plissken

    The X-37B is very valuable because it can expend its delta-v budget on ad-hoc tactical orbital changes and then return the surveillance payload back to Earth for reuse on the next mission.

  • Ben

    I mentioned this in the earlier x-37b post, but the choice of vehicle configuration gives a strong hint at some of the mission specs.

    The only reason to use a space plane is for payload retrieval, they want whatever it is back down in one piece, and it is too fragile to survive a desert landing in a conventional capsule.

    If all they needed was orbital maneuverability, then a capsule can do the job just as well, and with lower vehicle weight.

    Also the next generation heat shields are massively more durable than the STS program’s puffed glass thermal soak tiles, which lowers turn around time and cost.
    This in turn gives a reason for why they chose a runway landing system versus a water landing, which requires an expensive retrieval ship.

    • Bob

      “The only reason to use a space plane is for payload retrieval, they want whatever it is back down in one piece, and it is too fragile to survive a desert landing in a conventional capsule. ”

      perhaps a chemical laser weapons system with highly aligned precision optics? It would need to be brought back for refueling and you wouldnt want to bounce the thing off the ocean….. just a thought.

      • blight

        Luckily the OST allows for conventional weapons. If you wanted to destroy enemy satellites, it would be cheaper to emplace a constellation of satellites in orbit and use them to zap enemy satellites. If the satellites can change trajectory, and in the absence of tracking systems counter-attack would mean nailing every satellite in orbit that you could not properly account for.

      • Will

        I’ve still haven’t seen a convincing argument that this isn’t a prototype for a manned spacecraft. If it was a matter of refueling a laser, it would be easier to send up a remote controlled tanker than to fly the laser back down. If it was a matter of returning science experiments, this would a NASA project instead of an USAF 1. To clarify a previous post, what I mean by a prototype repairman’s van is that a production version will be bigger, but still much smaller than the shuttle.

        • praetorian

          The X-40 seemed bigger then the X-37B and that was a test bed for the X-37B. Anyone have some specs?

        • Adam

          Maybe this _is_ the tanker?

        • well-duh

          I think we will find that the robo-shuttle merely lacks a flight crew and that it might well carry a small mission crew with no flight tasks for short durations. That is important to save weight and unnecessary traingin that can stay on ground.

          I doubt refueling is easily done by any robot system we have for next future — without a relatively massive docking block to handle identification of port and absorb energy of any minor docking miscalculations. Keep the international space space docking mechanism as a starting guideline for what each satellite might need. Reducing it more than a magnitude in size is probably beyond current reliable technology. and the reduced docking collar is stil really big compared to lots of satellites.

          On the other hand a single human tech can space walk to a tiny nipple not adding much weight to design. Space walking reduces the chance of collision and removes rigid constraints on where and how refueling attachments are to be made. Heck you can even have a cover panel that has to be remove or a code that has to be entered.

        • well-duh

          No I think the repairman version is just this size. The whole point of the USAF approach is to eliminate the weight and waste of a flight crew. The UAV experience says its just as good to fly from the ground. The repairman is likely a single person or maybe two – whose total space training is limited to spacewalking and nothing to do with flying the ship. Other than that they are actual experts on the satellite or system being handled — not some NASA flight crew space monkey being primarily directed by a real expert on the ground looking over his shoulder via camera. And they will carry only the parts for that specific satellite and probably only for expected or likely repairs — not an entire disassembled satellite.

          Because the mission crew will be single system experts – mission duration will be very limited — hours to maybe 1-2 days max. The second shuttle quite possibly being backup contingency of returning satellite or most valuable parts, if it can’t be fixed in space.

          There will be no generic repairman van orbit earth for days piloted from satellite to satellite repairing all that are broken as reported. The shuttles will not need much space because they will carry only the specific parts expected for one satellite and only 1-2 repairmen.

      • blight

        Eventually solid-state lasers will supersede chemical ones. It all depends on whether or not solid-state lasers are ready the day the United States is ready to put laser weapons into orbit.

  • dauntlessCelt

    Ram the chinese satellites!!!

  • Matt Holzmann

    It’s meant to carry space ninjas of course. These ninjas will take apart Chinese ASAT satellites or redirect them at the mainland and/or Rooshian illegal space launch vehicles.

    This was all foreseen by Flash Gordon. After all, his nemesis was Ming the Merciless, whose only true desire is to kidnap Dale Arden and have his wicked way with her.

    Ninjas and microrobotic space weapons. I’m just sayin…..

  • eric

    i personally think its for spying, low orbit plus its air force means it has option of being for spying……just my input

  • Marshall

    I am sure that one of its missions is to scare the heck out of the Chinese and Russians who have been flexing their muscles since America has had its financial downturn…..

  • Dean

    They always deny any connection but I note the fact this thing just happens go up at the same time the shuttle is on orbit. Same thing with the first one too.

  • Chris Henry

    I think they’re using it to rendition Liberals

  • mig1nc

    I think Jack Bauer is onboard in the payload bay, which is just big enough for one man.

  • John

    They’re going to strap a death ray on it, duh…

  • PukinPutin

    Hasn’t anyone figured out that our “BLACK” space program is paid for by all the drugs the gubbamens imports to pay for it ? C-5B’s full of Coke/Heroin from Columbia/Afganistan ? Why has there been a bumper-crop of Junk outta Afganistan since we took over from the Taliban in the last 12 years ???