Space history of the past few decades is dominated by the Space Shuttle. Envisioned as a revolution in access to space it was designed to be launched numerous times per year, dramatically reducing the costs of access to space. The reality was unfortunately not in line with the vision as the numerous design concessions made, coupled with the incredibly long average turnaround time for missions, meant that the costs far exceeded that of many other alternative systems. Still it was an iconic craft, one that several generations will point to as the one thing they remember about our trips beyond our atmosphere. What few people realise though is that there was potential for the shuttle to have a Russian sister and her name was Buran.
The Buran project started in 1974, only 5 or so years after the Space Shuttle program was kicked off by NASA. The goals of both projects were quite similar in nature, both aiming to develop a reusable craft that could deliver satellites, cosmonauts and other cargo into orbit. Indeed when you look at the resulting craft, one of which is shown above in its abandoned complex at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the similarities are striking. It gets even more interesting when you compare their resulting specifications as they’re almost identical with only a meter or two difference between them. Of course under the hood there’s a lot of differences, especially when it comes to the primary purpose of the Buran launch system,
The propulsion system of the Buran differed significantly from the Shuttle with the boosters being a liquid oxygen/hydrogen mix rather than a solid rocket fuel. There are advantages to this, chief among them being able to shut down the engines once you start them (something solid rocket boosters can’t do) however at the same time these were not designed to be reusable, unlike their Shuttle compatriots. This would mean that the only reusable part of the Buran launch system was the orbiter itself which would increase the per-launch cost. Additionally the Buran included a fully autonomous flight control system from the get go, something the Shuttle only received during an upgrade later in its life.
That last part is somewhat telling of Buran’s true purpose as, whilst it could service non-military goals, it was primarily developed to assist Russia’s (then the Soviet Union) military interests. Indeed the winged profile of the craft enables many mission profiles that are simply of no interest to non-military agencies and having it fully autonomous from the get go shows it was meant more conflict than research. Indeed when commenting on the programme’s cancellation a Russian cosmonaut commented that the Buran didn’t have any civilian tasks planned for it and, with a lack of requirements to fuel a military programme, it was cancelled.
That was not before it saw numerous test flights, including a successful orbital test flight. The achievements that the Buran made during its single flight are not to be underestimated as it was the first craft to perform such a flight fully unmanned and to make a fully automated landing. That latter feat is even more impressive when you consider that there was a very strong crosswind, some 60 kilometers per hour, and it managed to land mere meters off its originally intended mark. Indeed had Russia continued development of the Buran shuttle there’s every chance that it would have been a much more advanced version of its American sister for a very long time.
Today however the Buran shuttles and their various test components lie scattered around the globe in varying states of disrepair and decay. Every so often rumours about a resurrection of the program surface, however it’s been so long since the program was in operation that such a program would only share the name and little more. Russia’s space program has continued on to great success however, their Soyuz craft becoming the backbone of many of humanity’s endeavours in space. Whilst the Buran may never have become the icon for space that its sister Shuttle did it remains the highly advanced concept that could have been, a testament to the ingenuity and capability of the Russian space program.
The SR-71, commonly referred to as the Blackbird, was a pinnacle of engineering. Released back in 1966 it was capable of cruising at Mach 3.2 at incredible heights, all the way up to 25KM above the Earth’s surface. It was the only craft that had the capability to outrun any missiles thrown at it and it’s for this reason alone that not one Blackbird was ever lost to enemy action (although a dozen did fail in a variety of other scenarios). However the advent of modern surveillance techniques, such as the introduction of high resolution spy satellites and unmanned drones made the capabilities that the Blackbird offered somewhat redundant and it was finally retired from service back in 1998. Still plane enthusiasts like myself have always wondered if there would ever be a successor craft as nothing has come close to matching the Blackbird’s raw speed.
The rumours of a successor started spreading over 3 decades ago when it was speculated that the USA, specifically Lockheed Martin, had the capability to build a Mach 5 version of the Blackbird. It was called Project Aurora by the public and there have been numerous sightings attributed to the project over the years as well as a lot of sonic boom data gathered by various agencies pointing towards a hypersonic craft flying in certain areas. However nothing concrete was ever established and it appear that should the USA be working on a Blackbird successor it was keeping it under tight wraps, not wanting a single detail of it to escape. A recent announcement however points to the Aurora being just a rumour with the Blackbirds successor being a new hypersonic craft called the SR-72.
Whilst just a concept at this stage, with the first scaled prototype due in 2023, the SR-72’s capabilities are set to eclipse that of the venerable Blackbird significantly. The target cruise speed for the craft is a whopping Mach 6, double that of its predecessor. The technology to support this kind of speed is still highly experimental to the point where most of the craft built to get to those kinds of speeds (in air) have all ended rather catastrophically. Indeed switching between traditional jet engines and the high speed scramjets is still an unsolved problem (all those previous scramjet examples were rocket powered) and is likely the reason for the SR-72’s long production schedule.
What’s particularly interesting about the SR-72 though is the fact that Lockheed Martin is actually considering building it as the aforementioned reasons for the Blackbird’s retirement haven’t gone away. Whilst this current concept design seems to lend itself to a high speed reconnaissance drone (I can’t find any direct mention of it being manned and there’s no visible windows on the craft), something which does fit into the USA’s current vision for their military capabilities, it’s still a rather expensive way of doing reconnaissance. However the SR-72 will apparently have a strike capable variant, something which the Blackbird did not have. I can’t myself foresee a reason for having such a high speed craft to do bombing runs (isn’t that what we have missiles for?) but then again I’m not an expert on military strategy so there’s probably something I’m missing there.
As a technology geek though the prospect of seeing a successor to the SR-72 makes me giddy with excitement as the developments required to make it a reality would mean the validation of a whole bunch of tech that could provide huge benefits to the rest of the world. Whilst I’m sure the trickle down wouldn’t happen for another decade or so after the SR-72’s debut you can rest assured that once scramjet technology has been made feasible it’ll find its way into other aircraft meaning super fast air travel for plebs like us. Plus there will also be all the demonstrations and air shows for Lockheed Martin to show off its new toy, something which I’m definitely looking forward to.
About six months ago I wrote a post on the American Department of Defense’s new space craft the X-37B. At the time it was quite the curiosity with it being shrouded in secrecy as to its actual purpose but there was ample information about the craft itself floating around the internet. Since then though there really hadn’t been anything to write home about as the only information we could get about the craft was its orbit. Everything else remained classified.
It’s that one piece of information however that’s sent the satellite watchers into a flurry. The X-37B’s orbit has been well known for quite some time and many amateur astronomers have been tracking its position since launch. 2 months ago however the diminutive cousin of the shuttle changed its orbit significantly, boosting itself a good 29KM higher above the earth’s surface. Amateur astronomers trying to catch a glimpse of the craft soon after the manoeuvres couldn’t find the craft and the hunt was on to find where it had gotten itself off to. It wasn’t too long before they found it however and the reclusive craft disappeared back into seclusion.
Then just a couple weeks ago they lost track of the craft yet again, signalling that it had made yet another in orbit adjustment. Two weeks of searching later and the craft was then spotted again around 54KM lower than it was previously. With the mission time over 180 days at this point the craft, according to specifications provided by the military, still has a good 90 days of in orbit time before it needs to return to the surface. Thus whilst the true nature of this change is not known you can probably bet that it’s not going to be coming home soon, and that brings up the possibility that the last few changes had another purpose in mind.
Whilst it was probably nothing more than just testing their orbit changing capabilities the conspiracy nut in me won’t be satisfied until I dig a little deeper into what they might be doing. We know that the X-37B has a decent payload bay on it but we have no idea whether it was loaded up or not. If it wasn’t that opens up the possibility of the DoD doing some in orbit satellite capture for reconnaissance or possibly bringing down to earth. The orbit of the X-37B is a strange one though with its inclination being 40 degrees, an orbit not shared by a lot of other craft. However there are a few as this site shows but unfortunately for my caged conspiracy nut they’re all at higher orbits and there’s nothing particularly interesting about any of them.
So much for that then.
In all seriousness the mission is more than likely all about testing the longevity of the components that have gone into making the X-37B and little else. The on orbit dancing this craft has been doing verifies that it’s capable of shifting itself around significantly and that the control systems of the craft are still functional after 6 months in high orbit. Had this been launched into a more populated area of space then I might contend that they were testing its ability to intercept other craft but right now it appears that the USA is just making sure their new toy works as it was designed to.
Future missions might be more exciting, however.
With the retirement of the Shuttle looming over our heads, even though it’s been moved back a couple months (ARGH!), organisations with an interest in space have been looking for alternatives to ensure they still have access once the iconic crafts roll back into their hangars for the last time. Whilst supply missions are more than aptly handled by the European ATV, Japanese HTV or Russian Progress and the ferrying of people handled by the Russian Soyuz it seems that military, who really didn’t get as much of the face time they wanted when it came to the Shuttle, have gone ahead and developed their own purpose built craft and boy does it ever look familiar:
That my friends is the X-37B, an orbital test prototype of the X-37 series of spacecraft. Don’t let the NASA badging on that plane fool you though as whilst the project was initially started in the hands of NASA it is now completely in the hands of the Department of Defense with NASA only having a small informal involvement in the project. Last week saw this craft successfully make its maiden flight into orbit but not to the usual fanfare that a new craft attracts and for good reason, everything about it is super secret.
About 10 years ago NASA began the X-37 project and invested quite a bit of cash into the development of the vehicle. Even back then the purpose of the craft was somewhat of a mystery as the primary function of this craft would be the launch and retrieval of payloads into space. Realistically this capability was already covered off by the space Shuttle (and indeed this craft was going to be launched in the Shuttle’s payload bay until they figured out that would be a waste of money) and even that had been usurped by the fact that it’s cheaper to deorbit and launch a new satellite than it is to bring an old one down for repairs and send it back up again. In 2004 the X-37 project was transferred to DARPA and the project became classified.
Usually that would mean the project would forever be surrounded in the mystery that accompanied its birth but the acquisition by the Department of Defense clarified its purpose. The Shuttle owes its current massive girth and plane like design due to the military’s involvement. Back then satellites were still expensive and the idea was that the Shuttle should be able to capture and retrieve broken military satellites (hence the large payload bay). Additionally there were some mission profiles which required the shuttle to launch into polar orbits, complete one orbit and then return to where it had launched from. Because of this the Shuttle had to have very large wings in order to be able to glide back to its original position, as the earth would have moved about 2000KM in the time it took them to complete such a maneuver.
Looking at this diminutive cousin of the Shuttle you can see such the characteristics of such missions profiles are very prevalent, such as the large wings and payload bay. The differences begin when you look under the hood and find that it’s fully robotic, capable of completing almost every task without human intervention. Additionally it carries with it a large solar array which allows it to stay in orbit for 270 days which is an eternity when compared to the Shuttle’s measly 2 weeks. Additionally unlike the Shuttle which is in essence its own rocket (those 2 SRBs strapped to the side of it are just to get it started, most of the work is done by the main 3 engine cluster on the back) the X-37 craft launches atop an ATLAS V rocket. The engine you see on the back is used for maneuvering on orbit and nothing else.
Overall its a pretty nifty little ship and really it should’ve been designed at the same time as the Shuttle. This craft serves the purpose of being a reusable transport to space that’s design to deliver and retrieve cargo and the lack of a crew makes it that much more efficient at doing its job. Had such a craft been designed around then you can bet that the Shuttle would look nothing like it does today and, more importantly, it wouldn’t be the huge cash drain that it has been for NASA over the past decade. Still there’s not much reason to dwell on that fact since it will soon be replaced by those upstarts in the private space sector which, in my opinion, can’t come any sooner. Hopefully since the military now has its own craft for performing its super secret missions they’ll keep their noses out of NASA’s business and we’ll avoid the whole design by committee debacle that was the Shuttle’s design process with future craft.