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Krazychic

Super Secret US Air Force Spaceplane Is Going Back Into Orbit This Week

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The US Air Force's secretive X-37B spaceplane returned to Earth back in May after a mysterious two years in orbit. Nobody knows what it was doing up there, since the mission is highly classified, but it's heading back into orbit in just a couple of days. And this time it's getting a little help from SpaceX.

 

Spoiler

Yes, the unmanned Boeing X-37B has completed four missions and spent a total of 2085 days in orbit. But this is the first mission where it won't be launched from an Atlas 5 rocket. Instead, this launch, scheduled for Thursday, will be on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

 

SpaceX became certified to launch US military payload back in 2015, and aside from getting this spaceplane in orbit, the company will be launching satellites for the US Air Force in 2018.

 

"The ability to launch the Orbital Test Vehicle on multiple platforms will ensure a robust launch capability for our experiment designers," Randy Walden, the director of the US Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement back in June about the partnership with SpaceX.

 

"We are excited about this new partnership on creating flexible and responsive launch options and are confident in SpaceX's ability to provide safe and assured access to space for the X-37B program," Walden continued.

 

As Space Coast Daily notes, when the spaceplane landed at Kennedy Space Center back in May it was the first since the last flight of the space shuttle Atlantis six years ago. Previous spaceplane missions were operated out of Edwards Air Force Base in California, but now everything has been moved to Florida.

 

From Space Coast Daily:

 

Three previous X-7B missions all concluded at Edwards Air Force Base in California. But the Air Force now maintains one of three former shuttle hangars at KSC for the X-37B program, allowing the Boeing-built spaceplane to launch, land, and be refurbished at the same spaceport.

 

Like previous missions, we have no idea what the unmanned spaceplane will be doing, nor how long it will be in orbit. But with everything going to the dogs here on Earth, we don't blame it for wanting to get away for a while. If it's gone for another two years, that would put it back on this planet sometime around September of 2019. Hopefully we'll have figured some stuff out by then.

 

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9 hours ago, Krazychic said:

Nobody knows what it was doing up there, since the mission is highly classified

Most likely the same thing the SR-71 was doing during the Cold War. Hard to detect flyovers when you are completely outside of radar range. At most it probably looks like space debris or an anomaly through visual optics.


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4 minutes ago, Solaris said:

Most likely the same thing the SR-71 was doing during the Cold War.

You'd think they'd just use satellites for that though, as they're cheaper, more reliable, and more responsive.

 

Spy planes were used in the past mostly because the wireless transmission of images was terrible, optics were poor, and coverage wasn't flexible.


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4 minutes ago, Tucker933 said:

You'd think they could just use satellites for that though.

The US is really big on their stealth kick right now, trying to find ways of avoiding radar/optic detection from sensory equipment. Also probably testing the ability to strike from LOE without the use of ICBMs or other surface-to-surface platforms. The problem with those two are that they can be detected and something like the X-37B gives the US first strike advantages.

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Most long-haul US derived GEOINT, IMINT, and MASINT is collected via recon satellite by the NRO, however aircraft do provide a handful of capabilities and visual perspectives that satellites are unable to, which is why the SR-71 was brought out of retirement in 94' and why the U-2 is maintained with the latest aerial recon suite. Recon satellite retasking isn't a cheap, nor easy affair. Any alteration to a satellites scheduling costs lots of cash, burns precious thruster fuel, and can result in the loss of intelligence and reduction of system life-span. 

 

What made and still makes ISR aircraft viable platforms are; senor/payload system flexibility, ability to meet time-sensitive requirements, ease of deployability, and relatively low cost compared to the cost of sat retasking. The loss of an U-2 or even an X-37 is inconsequential compared to life-span reduction of something like an KH-11 series satellite. 

 

The cheapest ISR assets by far are drones, but to maintain minimal size and weight requirements on-board ISR and ECM are limited. At the end of the day, it's all about redundancy and not keeping all your intelligence collecting assets in one basket.  

 

What makes the X-37 unique is it is classified within the USA series.

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49 minutes ago, Weps said:

Most long-haul US derived GEOINT, IMINT, and MASINT is collected via recon satellite by the NRO, however aircraft do provide a handful of capabilities and visual perspectives that satellites are unable to, which is why the SR-71 was brought out of retirement in 94' and why the U-2 is maintained with the latest aerial recon suite. Recon satellite retasking isn't a cheap, nor easy affair. Any alteration to a satellites scheduling costs lots of cash, burns precious thruster fuel, and can result in the loss of intelligence and reduction of system life-span. 

 

What made and still makes ISR aircraft viable platforms are; senor/payload system flexibility, ability to meet time-sensitive requirements, ease of deployability, and relatively low cost compared to the cost of sat retasking. The loss of an U-2 or even an X-37 is inconsequential compared to life-span reduction of something like an KH-11 series satellite. 

 

The cheapest ISR assets by far are drones, but to maintain minimal size and weight requirements on-board ISR and ECM are limited. At the end of the day, it's all about redundancy and not keeping all your intelligence collecting assets in one basket.  

 

What makes the X-37 unique is it is classified within the USA series.

The months it takes the secure a launch and the hundreds of millions it costs to fly is a better alternative than allocating satellite time?

 

SpaceX is the cheapest launch provider, at around $100m for national security launches (roughly a third the cost of ULA). Being that the X37 was planned to be exclusively flown at ULA's costs, and counting the price of refurbishment, it wouldn't seem to offer any benefit over satellite reconnaissance. It makes more sense that it's used with varying experiments, such as the thermal efficiency tests for satellite electronics they've previously flown with it.


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1 hour ago, Tucker933 said:

The months it takes the secure a launch and the hundreds of millions it costs to fly is a better alternative than allocating satellite time?

 

No, I was speaking towards the cost-saving value of recon aircraft across the board, not solely the X-37, as compared to retasking recon satellites. I was primarily commenting with the abilities of the SR-71 and U-2 in mind (as well as like aircraft). 

 

Quote

 

SpaceX is the cheapest launch provider, at around $100m for national security launches (roughly a third the cost of ULA). Being that the X37 was planned to be exclusively flown at ULA's costs, and counting the price of refurbishment, it wouldn't seem to offer any benefit over satellite reconnaissance. It makes more sense that it's used with varying experiments, such as the thermal efficiency tests for satellite electronics they've previously flown with it.

 

At first glance I'd say you're more than right, because I was carried away with making a general point regarding recon aircraft, rather than commenting on your point concerning the X-37. However, for shits and giggles I looked into sat retasking details. Factoring in reduction of life-span (or total loss of the satellite), retasking costs, and possible loss of intel...the cost of retasking can range from as little as $1,000,000 to as great as $500,000,000 depending on the factors involved. 

In the case of the X-37 possibly acting in a recon role, what it does provide that is a tough thing to monetarily quantify over that of the value of a recon satellite would be ease of repositioning and what would be the true ace in the hole, a scalable payload of more advanced senor suite than what is on-board orbiting recon sats. That the X-37 is a reusable platform provides a number of benefits in military ISR applications. 

 

The X-37 is more than capable of preforming a multitude of congruent missions, ranging from as simple as thermal efficiency testing to preforming advanced hyper-spectral imaging reconnaissance.

 

Why risk retasking a sat, with a known loss of platform life-span, possible loss of the platform, known loss in thruster fuel capacity, and associated retasking costs....versus a repositionable, flight-capable relaunchable platform that is scalable with advanced modular sensor suites over existing in orbit sats? I mean, $100M launch every 224 to 717 days or ($1M to 500M) retasking cost w/ associated platform mission capability loss, while risking the loss of an $1B platform? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Weps

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13 hours ago, Weps said:

Why risk retasking a sat, with a known loss of platform life-span, possible loss of the platform, known loss in thruster fuel capacity, and associated retasking costs....versus a repositionable, flight-capable relaunchable platform that is scalable with advanced modular sensor suites over existing in orbit sats? I mean, $100M launch every 224 to 717 days or ($1M to 500M) retasking cost w/ associated platform mission capability loss, while risking the loss of an $1B platform? 

Fair point in regards to re-positioning, however there's quite a network of satellites up there, providing wide coverage without having to relocate any satellites. Optics for geostationary satellites has also been good enough for high-resolution ground coverage for almost a decade now, and can singularly point almost anywhere on a hemisphere without repositioning. In regards to fuel expenditure for when you really do need to move a satellite, the ion propulsion that modern satellites use are ridiculously efficient, and almost entirely rely on the electrical power collected from their panels. The first iteration flown is actually the primary propulsion on the Dawn probe, which launched in 2007 and is still exploring dwarf planets in the belt. The X-37 just has a liquid-fueled main engine, and uses cold gas thrusters for minor adjustments, both of which have very finite fuel.


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13 hours ago, Tucker933 said:

Fair point in regards to re-positioning, however there's quite a network of satellites up there, providing wide coverage without having to relocate any satellites. Optics for geostationary satellites has also been good enough for high-resolution ground coverage for almost a decade now, and can singularly point almost anywhere on a hemisphere without repositioning. In regards to fuel expenditure for when you really do need to move a satellite, the ion propulsion that modern satellites use are ridiculously efficient, and almost entirely rely on the electrical power collected from their panels. The first iteration flown is actually the primary propulsion on the Dawn probe, which launched in 2007 and is still exploring dwarf planets in the belt. The X-37 just has a liquid-fueled main engine, and uses cold gas thrusters for minor adjustments, both of which have very finite fuel.

 

Agreed, retasking is not the norm, mostly reserved in cases where a satellite series isn't equipped with certain sensor types. 

 

From what I understand, in the latest mission OTV-4 the X-37 was equipped with a number of XR-5A Hall thrusters to provide feedback for Areojet Rocketdyne. 

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