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article imageOp-Ed: Is secret USAF robot plane X37B a warrior or a workhorse?

By Paul Wallis     Jun 6, 2012 in Technology
Sydney - A robot US space plane, X37B, has just completed a record feat of endurance, a whole year in space. This rather evasively publicized major achievement is a first for any kind of reusable spacecraft.
It’s also a reassuring achievement at a time when many commentators (me for one) were wondering if the US was playing with a full deck on its space program capabilities. The apparently blasé decommissioning of the space shuttles, given the very high reliance of the US military on space infrastructure like spy satellites, etc. was looking very much like an unbelievably stupid own goal.
I did a previous Digital Journal article on X37B, and my views have now evolved with the added information, such as it is. explains- to a point- what’s going on:
The space plane now circling Earth is the second spacecraft of its kind built for the Air Force by Boeing’s Phantom Works. What payload the X-37B is carrying is classified, and the mission is being carried out by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
Each X-37B space plane is about 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide. The vehicle has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed and is outfitted with a deployable solar panel to generate power.
This is the second voyage of the X37B. The previous mission was 225 days. The USAF advises that the current projections are that the X37B will land at Vandenburg Air Force base “early to mid-June”. Don’t over-commit yourselves, guys.
This spacecraft may be giving a pretty creditable impersonation of a sort of Space Drone, but that’s misleading in more ways than one. The X37B may well have a lot of capabilities and from the size of it, it may well have the capabilities of a Global Hawk or more. That’s just the basic framework. The story with any platform is that real capabilities boil down to what it can carry, and X37B looks “robust” to say the least.
From the general layout of the space plane, it looks like a much-thought-out, upgraded and very dynamic operational system. It’s a grandchild of the shuttles, in design terms, with its Orca-like nose, a natural feature of the more advanced drones, hypersonic fin layout and very tough looking “wings”.
X37B- Space warrior or space workhorse?
The tactical significance of a working military space plane with this extraordinary level of endurance shouldn’t be underrated. A year in space is no picnic. There’s hard radiation, space materials, and significant wear and tear involved in that timeframe. Whoever thought out the test parameters is an expert, with a very realistic appraisal of operational possibilities. A year is long enough for any sort of problems to show up on any sort of space system. This was a real test, and it looks like X37B passed all its tests very well.
(For the record, the USAF X series has always been the best and most intensely creative of its research programs, for decades. To get your X, you need to be a damn good idea in the first place. Boeing aren’t strangers to the highly creative technologies which characterise these tests, either. This may well be where the money and time have been going, and if so, that time and money has been well used, certainly better than many critics, including myself, would have believed until we saw proof. X37B looks like a groundbreaker in many ways. It would also explain the uncharacteristically long silence between major projects by the USAF.)
The warrior scenario
As a weapons platform, it’s anyone’s guess what X37B could mount. In the past, the US has always used tech superiority as a major factor in operations. There are obvious limitations to what sort of hard points X37B might have, because for spacecraft the hard points can’t be exposed as on a fighter. They’d have to be recessed, and that ultimately equates to onboard space availability issues.
If the US is looking for a major deterrent to enemies attacking its space infrastructure, a space fighter able to retaliate against enemy resources for a whole year would be a great deterrent. It’d be suicide for an opponent to risk major hits to its own infrastructure. They’d be blinded.
Sadly, this area is of course where the more banal observations about X37B’s mission have centred. One theory is that it was used to spy on the Chinese space station. Professionals say that’s rubbish, with good reason. The US can observe space better than any other country, and much more easily. They know when other countries launch, and usually what they’re launching.
Less banal, however, is the hint that the X37B may have been advertising its presence to those who needed to know about it. Hard to imagine a scarier sight than an unknown, highly advanced US spacecraft appearing on your instruments, and sticking around for a year. A good psych-out, at the very least.
The workhorse scenario
The economics of X37B point to another much more utilitarian, but extremely valuable role for the new space plane. Shuttles are expensive. They need to be deployed in high value roles. That said, there are a lot of very basic, necessary roles for a robot. Robot arms are currency de jour in space, in space stations and everywhere else.
The robots could save billions in space. They would also drastically reduce the issues related to risk and basic management of space infrastructure. That makes a lot of sense, and could help revive NASA’s long suffering fortunes after the Congressional “accounts wars” which have been so unproductive for so long. The US could also set up a very lucrative space service for doing the work other nations can’t do on their own satellites. There are several high cost services which are currently on the blink, and their operators would be glad to have them turned into paying operations again. New generations of satellites will also need help.
Warrior or workhorse?
The likely scenario is that X37B is a baseline model for both scenarios. It’s unlikely the US would miss a trump card like a space-capable fighter. Demilitarized space or not, it defies military logic to ignore that capability. It’s equally unlikely that the invaluable workhorse option would be ignored. I think we’ll see a lot of X37B and its descendants, possibly quite soon in real terms.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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