X-37B, a vehicle for the space future
X-37B, automatic spacecraft of the US Air Force, has just celebrated 1 year in orbit and keeps working. Buran, the Soviet unmanned craft which made its first and only flight in late 1980s is thought to be a prototype for the American machine. Although X-37B’s specific tasks were never made public, some experts suggest testing of details for prospective military spacecraft among the most probable. However, its real importance for space technology may be even greater.
The official name for X-37B is OTV-2 (Orbital Test Vehicle), thus meaning that the spacecraft is the second in the OTV series. Its predecessor OTV-1 flew between April 22 and December 3, 2010, having spent more than 224 days on orbit. The spacecraft performed automatic landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, thus repeating the twenty-year-old Soviet achievement of Buran, which performed automatic landing in 1988.
The second X-37B has been traveling around the Earth for more than one year after the launch on March 5, 2011 (Cape Canaveral, Atlas V rocket launcher). Its primary mission should have lasted 270 days, but in the end of the last November the mission was extended for undefined time. According to Tracy Bunko, an spokesperson for the Secretary of the Air Force, 'on-orbit experimentation is continuing, though we cannot predict when that will be complete'. It is probable that the mission end will be announced just before the landing, as it was with OTV-1.
X-37B is rather small (around 8.8 m long and 2.9 m high with wing span of about 4.3 m). Its tasks are widely discussed, as the official information is scarce. It is announced that X-37B flight is aimed to conduct experiments and to deliver and to return payload to the orbit and back to the Earth. Its orbit is around 320—345 km high with 42,8 degree inclination.
The spacecraft is closely followed by amateur astronomers. Their data provides source for suggestions on the aims of X-37B, that include the whole scope of versions, from spying on the Earth or space objects to the exotic projects of spacecraft refueling or space weapon, even though the last version is mostly disproved by the experts.
The most probable idea is the one that cargo section of the spacecraft contains some components for future military spacecraft under development, which are tested for resistance to space factors or, possibly, work in space.
According to Tom McIntyre, the X-37 program director, the next launch within this project is scheduled for the autumn 2012.
Boeing engineers, which made X-37B, are already thinking on turning it into manned space ship. In the end of the last year the manned version of the project was presented, named X-37C. According to Boeing representatives, it can be used both to deliver cargo and people to the International Space Station and to fly space tourists. The advantage of this variant is that X-37 is able to perform soft landing, so that certain specimens obtained during biological or technical experiments can be returned back to the Earth.
The need for new manned spacecraft is urgent for the US, as after the last shuttle launch there are no spacecraft to maintain the ISS which makes this segment of American space program dependent upon the Russian vehicles. Although new manned space ships are under development now, it is unlikely that they will be in use before 2017, according to NASA's administrator Charles Bolden.
NASA and Roscosmos have signed an agreement for ferrying American astronauts to the ISS in 2914—2015 by the Russian spacecraft. The price of the contract is $753 mln. Following Bolden, each year of delay until 2017 (or later) would cost the US around $450 mln.
While no one can predict whether X-37 turns into a ferry to the ISS, the whole situation implies several conclusions. The first is that there will be certain demand for manned flights in the years to come, as the ISS will be working until 2020. Currently Russia holds monopoly for this part of the market (leaving alone China). This situation nonetheless is most likely to change very soon, as new ships are being developed rather rapidly, even though it will take several years to complete their maiden flights. Still, as for now Russia does not present new concepts of spacecraft, besides those used today, which are rather old, although highly reliable.
The US current situation after the end of 'shuttles' era' is a good example of the wrong decision leading to serious gaps in the long run. New technology needs time to mature (X-37 was initiated in the late 90's, by NASA), so that the future has already begun.