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?

  • jamesb101

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

    • Evan

      They keep the TARDIS prototype in Area 51.

  • 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?

    • blight

      You may have a point. Contrail be damned, this craft could be fast, and would probably trigger hysterical panic because the only missile systems that could nail these would be ABM systems, which by and large would also set off an EMP over your own homeland. Not an option in most cases…

    • well-duh

      Now than might well be a real robo -shuttle idea. Custom reconaissance packages with mission designed suite of sensors and transmitters rather than fixed satellite design. Dare we say eventually custom Predator type self-defense and offensive packages?

  • 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.

    • Ben

      The new PICA ablative tiles are a descendant of the apollo style reentry system, not the space shuttles Aerogel thermal soak tiles.
      Up until recently the ablative style heat shields had to applied all in once piece, instead of a more flexible modular format.

      The STS thermal soak tiles were theoretically infinite use, but in reality had to be replaced after every flight which is why they went over budget so much.
      The ablative tiles burn away a little each flight, with a limited lifespan, but they are durable enough to not need replacing until they are spent.

  • 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.

    • Adam

      that makes perfect sense.. A maneuverable ISR platform where you don’t lose the platform when you run out of hydrazine..

      I’m sure someone said: “Hey, instead of spending all of our on-orbit propellant maneuvering our intelsats to the right place, and then losing a multi-hundred-million (or more, who knows with black ISR budgets) dollar asset when the propellant runs out, let’s just make the payload returnable, refuel, and get back to orbit!”

      The strategic payoff is pretty clear, from an asset management point of view.

  • 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.

      • 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…..

    • Rob

      It was a global downturn, never forget.

      Russia and China ‘flexing their muscles’ is purely a response to America invading, and attempt at taking over 2 countries near them, while keeping homeland in a ‘business as usual’ state.

      If anything, because of our current situation Russia AND China no longer fear us now.

      As for the secret flights. A no-brainer to me. To spy and test feasibility of satellite defense from low orbit lasers.

  • 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 ???