Just under a year ago I wrote about the diminutive cousin of the soon to be retired space shuttle the X-37B. It’s been an unusually popular post on my blog, seeming to grab everyone’s attention every time someone makes a mention of the X-37B. Today was no exception and of course I had to why this secretive craft was causing such a ruckus again. The last couple times it was nothing more than it changing its orbit so I wasn’t expecting anything amazing. Turns out that 2 days ago the X-37B launched on its second mission into space atop an ATLAS-V rocket, its ultimate purpose still remaining a classified secret.
The launch was meant to take place on Friday but was delayed due to low clouds. Although I’ve mentioned in the past that launches can be delayed due to weather I’ve never properly explained why that is the case. You see back in the days of the American moonshot launches happened on schedule regardless of weather conditions. This led to Apollo 12 launching during a heavy rainstorm and although the craft was insulated against strikes (much like aircraft of the day were) it still triggered 2 lightning strikes that traveled the length of the craft and along the exhaust plume. The strike caused all 3 of the fuel cells to be disconnected and the only thing that kept the launch going was John Aaron‘s obscure call of “Try SCE to AUX” which only Alan Bean recognized. To avoid such problems in the future NASA now scrubs launches if there’s a significant chance of lightning strikes.
There’s not a whole lot to say about this mission since it’s all so hush-hush, but as far as the defense force is telling us it is testing equipment for future satellites. Undoubtedly all of those pieces of equipment have military purposes in mind leading many to speculate that the X-37B is the USA’s attempt at weaponizing space, which they have flatly denied. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were however as the Russians famously launched several space stations armed with varying levels of conventional weaponry. I’m more a fan of the X-37B being an orbital satellite capture device though as its payload bay is large enough to store one and bring it back to earth, as this infographic shows:
Credit: Karl Tate, space.com
The most interesting thing about this launch of the X-37B is the short turn around time it had from its last mission to its launch a couple days ago. After spending 224 days in space and returning in December last year its taken just under 3 months to get it flight ready and launched again. The shuttle by comparison takes much longer currently, usually upwards of 6 months (although the record stands at 8 weeks and the design was for a mere 2 weeks). This shows how smaller purpose built craft, even at the experimental stage, are far superior than jack-of-all-trades type crafts like the space shuttle is. Of course the shuttle was mired by strange military requirements that required it to do one orbit and return to earth, something which the X-37B doesn’t have to contend with.
Like its previous mission I’m sure the X-37B will provide amateur satellite trackers hours of fun over the course of the next 7 months or so. It will be interesting to see if it moves around in orbit as much as it did last time or if it delivers some payload into orbit (it certainly has the capability). The speculation is probably a lot more fun than the actual payload itself which is likely to be reconnaissance equipment since that’s really all the military does in space. Still if the military can see how well purpose built craft like the X-37B work then NASA can’t be far behind and hopefully their next generation of craft will reflect that.