The European Space Agency’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV) is an interesting platform, ostensibly sharing some inspiration from the United States Air Force’s X-37B but with a very different purpose in mind. The IXV is set to be more of a general purpose craft, one that’s capable of testing new space technologies and running experiments that might not otherwise be feasible. It’s also set to be ESA’s first fully automated craft that’s capable of re-entry, an incredible technological feat that will inevitably find its way into other craft around the world. Today marks the completion of the IXV’s maiden flight, completing a sub-orbital journey that was, by all accounts, wildly successful.
This flight was meant to be conducted towards the end of last year but was delayed due to the novel launch profile that the IXV flight required, something which the launch system wasn’t typically used for. The mission profile remained the same however, serving as a shakedown of all the key systems as well as providing a wealth of flight data around how all the systems functioned during the flight. This included things such as the automated guidance system, avionics and the thermal shielding that coats the bottom of the craft. The total flight time was approximately 100 minutes with the craft making a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean where it was retrieved by a recovery craft (pictured above).
Whilst the IXV platform is likely to see many more launches in the future it’s actually a stepping stone between a previous craft, the Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator (ARD), and a future space plane called the Program for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe (PRIDE). The ultimate goal of this program is to develop a fully reusable craft that the ESA can use for its missions in space and judging by the design of the IXV it’s a safe bet that it will likely end up looking something like the Space Shuttle. The IXV will never take human passengers to orbit, it’s simply too small to accomplish that feat, however much of the technology used to create it could be easily repurposed to a man rated craft.
I think the ESA has the right approach when it comes to developing these craft, opting for smaller, purpose built craft rather than a jack-of-all trades type which, as we’ve seen in the past, often results in complexity and cost. The total cost of the IXV craft (excluding the launcher) came out to a total of $170 million which is actually cheaper than the X-37B by a small margin. It will be interesting to see if the ESA gets as much use out of their IXV though as whilst it’s a reusable craft I haven’t heard talk of any further flights being planned anytime soon.
It’s great to see multiple nations pursuing novel ways of travelling to and from space as the increasing number of options means that there’s more and more opportunities for us to do work out there in the infinite void. The IXV might not become the iconic craft that it emulates but it will hopefully be the platform that enables the ESA to extend their capabilities far beyond their current station. The next few years are going to be ones of envelope pushing for the ESA and I, for one, am excited to see what they can accomplish.
It’s been a long time since I wrote about the X-37B, originally NASA’s but now the Department of Defense’s secretive space plane, and that’s mostly because there’s not been a whole lot to report.The secret nature of its mission means that no details about its payload are readily available and unlike the first time it was launched it’s been behaving itself, staying within its own orbit. Still that didn’t stop the Internet from going on a rampage of speculation, the highlight of it being the ludicrous idea that it was spying on China’s efforts in space. However over the weekend it returned from its orbit around the earth after a staggering 2 years on orbit.
Now 2 years might not sound like a long time, especially when the Voyager satellites are pushing 35+ years, however for a craft of this type such a record is a pretty significant advancement. Most capsules and spacecraft that had downrange capacity (I.E. they can bring stuff back) usually have endurances of a couple weeks. Even the venerable shuttle could only last a couple weeks in orbit before things started to get hairy, even if it was docked to the International Space Station. With the X-37B able to achieve an endurance of 2 years without too much of a struggle is a pretty impressive achievement and raises some interesting questions about what its true purpose might be.
The official stance is that it’s a test platform for a whole host of new space technologies like navigational systems, autonomous flight and so on. Indeed from what we’ve seen of the craft it certainly contains a lot of these features as it was able to land itself without human intervention just last week. It’s small payload bay nods towards some other potential purposes (the favourite speculation is satellite retrieval) but it’s most likely just used to house special equipment that will be tested over the duration of the flight. There’s potential for it to house some observational equipment but the DoD already has multiple in-orbit satellites for that purpose and unlike spy satellites of the past (which used film) there’s no real need for downrange capabilities in them any more.
Unfortunately any technological innovations contained within the X-37B are likely to stay there as NASA hasn’t been involved in the X-37B project since it handed it over. It’s disappointing really considering that the DoD has a budget for space activities that equals NASA’s entire budget and there’s definitely a lot of tech in there that they could make use of. Thankfully the private space industry is developing a lot of tech along similar lines so hopefully NASA and its compatriots will have access to similar capabilities in the not too distant future.
Maybe one day we’ll find out the true purpose of the X-37B much like we did with Hexagon. Whilst the story might be of the mundane the technology powering things like Hexagon never ceases to amaze me. If the X-37B is truly a test platform for new kinds of space tech then there’s likely things on there that are a generation ahead of where we are today. We may never know, but it’s always interesting to let your mind wonder about these things.
The USA has always been wary of China’s ambitions in space and I believe it’s mostly for all the wrong reasons. Sure I can understand that the fact that China’s space division is basically a wing of its military might be cause for concern, but the same could be said for the fact that the USA’s Department of Defense’s budget for space exploration exceeds that of NASA’s. Indeed the USA is worried enough about China’s growing power in space and other industries that there’s already been speculation that it could spark another space race. Whilst this would be amazing for a space nut like myself I really wouldn’t wish that kind of tension on the world, especially when the USA is struggling as much as it is right now.
Of course that tension is enough to spark all sorts of other speculation, like for instance the true nature of the mysterious X-37B’s mission. It’s payload bay suggested that it was capable of satellite capture, an attribute shared by it’s bigger cousin the Shuttle, but its previous orbits didn’t put it near anything and it didn’t really have enough delta-v capability to be able to intersect with anything outside a few degrees of its own orbit. However since then there’s been a couple launches and one of them is smack bang in the X-37B’s territory.
The craft in question is none other than China’s Tiangong-1.
Yesterday the BBC ran an article that speculated that the USA was using the X-37B to spy on Tiangong-1. Now initially I dismissed this as pure speculation, there are far easier ways for the USA to spy on a satellite (like using one of their numerous other satellites or ground based dish arrays) than throwing their still experimental craft up in a chase orbit. However checking the orbital information for both Tiangong-1 and the X-37B shows that they do indeed share very similar orbits, varying by only 0.3 of a degree in inclination and having pretty similar apogees and perigees. Figuring this is the future and everything should be a few Google searches away from certainty I set about finding out just how far apart these two satellites actually are to see if there was some possibility of it being used to spy on China.
To do this I used 2 different tools, the first being n2yo.com a satellite tracking website. This site allows you to input the satellites you want to track and then displays them on a Google map. Once I have that I can then use another tool, this time from findpostcode.com.au which shows me the distance between two points (which thankfully also takes into account the fact the earth isn’t flat). So firstly here’s a picture of the two orbits overlapped:
So as you can see they do indeed share very similar orbits but there does seem to be an awful lot of distance between them. Just how much distance? Well the second picture tells the full story:
Just over 14,000KM which is greater than the diameter of the earth. What this means is that if the X-37B was being used to spy on Tiangong-1 it would have to peer through the earth in order to see it, something which I’m pretty sure it isn’t capable of. Also if you look at the first picture you’ll also notice that Tiangong-1 actually passes over the USA as part of its normal orbital rotation, putting it well within the purview of all the ground observations that they have control of. I’ll note that the distance between Tiangong-1 and the X-37B won’t remain constant, but they will spend a good portion of their lives apart. Enough so that I don’t believe it would be particularly useful for reconnaissance. Additionally unless the USA knew which orbit that Tiangong-1 was going to use (possible, but we’re getting deeper into conspiracy territory here) then technically Tiangong-1 launched onto the X-37B’s orbit and not the other way around (it has not changed its orbit since the second launch, unlike it did the first time).
Honestly the idea that the USA was using the X-37B was definitely an interesting prospect but in reality there’s really no justification apart from conspiracy theory-esque hand waving. The USA has far better tools at their disposal to spy on China’s fledgling space industry than a single run experimental craft that’s only on its second flight. The orbits also put them at a fair distance apart for a good chunk of the time (as far as I can tell, at least) as well making it even less likely that the X-37B is being used for spying. Still it was an interesting idea to investigate, as is most things to do with the ever mysterious X-37B.
Maybe it’s the combination of mission secrecy and close resemblance to the now retired shuttle fleet but the X-37B seems to get more press than any other space craft currently flying in orbit. When I first saw the diminutive shuttle cousin back in April last year I figured it was just a unique experiment that the Department of Defence was carrying out and the rumours about it’s satellite capturing capabilities were greatly exaggerated. Indeed towards the end of the mission I investigated the idea that it was already performing such a task but based on the current trajectories of other satellites it didn’t seem like that was the case. The X-37B blasted off once again at the start of this year again shrouded in mystery as to what its actual mission was and it’s been up there ever since.
That last fact is interesting as the X-37B’s stated capabilities put it at being on-orbit for a maximum of 270 days. The deadline for its return to earth would have then been around November 30th, a date that has well past now. The United States Air Force has stated that its mission has been extended and it should be on orbit for a while to come. This is interesting because it tells us that the X-37B is a lot more capable than they’ve state it is. Whilst this could just be good old fashioned American over-engineering it does lead some credence to the theories that there’s a whole bunch of capabilities hidden within the X-37B that aren’t officially there.
What’s been really interesting however are the discussions surrounding a potential manned variant of the X-37B. As it stands the X-37B is quite a small craft, measuring a mere 10 meters long and a payload bay that’s only got a few cubic meters of storage space. Overall its very similar in size to the Soyuz craft so there’s definitely some potential for it to be converted. Rumour has it that the X-37B would be elongated significantly though, bringing its total length up to 14 metres with enough space to sit 7 astronauts. Granted it wouldn’t be as roomy as the shuttle was (nor could it deliver non-crew payloads at the same time) but it would be a quick path to restoring the USA’s manned flight capability. That would hinge on the man rating Atlas V launch system which is currently under investigation.
It’s not just space nuts that are getting all aflutter about the X-37B either. China has expressed concerns that the X-37B could be used as a orbital weapons delivery system. The secrecy surrounding the actual mission profiles that the X-37B has been flying is probably what has prompted these concerns and it being under the sole purview of the Air Force doesn’t help matters. In all honesty I doubt the X-37B would be used as a weapons platform since it’s more of a generalist/reconnaissance craft than a weapons platform. If there’s someone you want to worry about launching weapons into orbit it would be the Russians as they are the only (confirmed) nation to have launched armed craft. A dedicated weapons platform would also look nothing like the X-37B, especially if it was going to be designed for on-orbit combat (who needs wings in space?).
The next couple months will give us some more insight as to the true purpose of the X-37B. It’s quite likely that these first couple flights have just been complete shake downs of all the systems that make up the X-37B with the first flight being orbital manoeuvring verification and the current flight being an endurance test. Should it stay up there for a significant amount of time it’s more likely that it’s some form of advanced reconnaissance craft rather than something crazy like a satellite capturer or orbital weapons platform. The prospect of a manned variant is quite exciting and I’ll be waiting anxiously to see if the USA pursues that as an option.
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.
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.