Feeds

US X-37B robot minishuttle: 'Secret space warplane'?

No, but it could do some naughty orbital stuff

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

But there are more satellites up there than just US ones

It seems, to be fair, that the military was probably just as disappointed in the shuttle as civil space enthusiasts were. Unlike the civil space programme, however, the US Air Force is carrying on with the spaceplane idea.

The "concepts of operations" which the Rapid Capabilities Office hopes for out of the X-37B seem likely to focus on the same things the Air Force originally wanted from the Shuttle: mainly the ability to recover horrifyingly expensive surveillance hardware from space for repairs, replenishment of manoeuvring fuel and/or upgrading.

Possession of a larger X-37B, for instance, would have avoided the international furore which resulted two years ago when the US government decided to shoot a crippled spy sat out of orbit with a missile-defence interceptor rather than allow it to fall into the atmosphere uncontrolled.

Retrieval capability alone might justify the Air Force continuing with X-37B and possible larger successors, depending what the secret running costs of the "black" space programme actually are. However the design of the robot spaceplane, coupled with the talk of improved heat shielding, suggests that sneaky, low profile cross-range re-entries may also be a card the US military yet aspires to have up its sleeve.

If you want to get out into the wilder speculative realms you could postulate a mission lifting off to retrieve, not a US satellite, but someone else's. The initial launch would be explained as delivery of a normal secret payload, but in fact the spaceplane would lift empty, scoop up its target on one pass and return to land on a "Mission 3B" style profile without ever flying above a hostile telescope or radar station. The owners of the sat-napped spacecraft, out of sight on the other side of the world, would never know what had happened to their kit.

Less aggressively, missions of this sort might instead make a close pass by opposition spacecraft without anyone knowing about it - maybe just to get a good visual or electronic look at them, or perhaps to interfere with them in some suitably deniable way. This sort of thing would perhaps be practical with the existing X-37B; there'd be no need for a larger follow-on craft.

The US itself is known to be quite paranoid about this sort of thing being done to its own satellites: it is spending a lot of money on kit which would let a satellite's operators know what was happening to it in such an event (normally it would simply go mysteriously offline) and on dedicated guardian sats intended to watch over other US spacecraft even when they're above other people's airspace.

In general one can be sure that if the US military is worried about being done to, it is also thinking of ways to do unto others as well. So perhaps the Iranians are right - maybe the X-37B is in fact intended as a space fighter or interceptor of sorts.

There's a US Air Force factsheet on the robot spaceplane here. Readers may also be interested to note that a second X-37B has already been ordered by the USAF. ®

*The White Knight is best known for carrying the Ansari X-Prize winning suborbital rocketplane SpaceShipOne up to ignition height. It has also carried out a lot of other, less visible work for various US government customers.

Remote control for virtualized desktops

More from The Register

next story
Antarctic ice THICKER than first feared – penguin-bot boffins
Robo-sub scans freezing waters, rocks warming models
I'll be back (and forward): Hollywood's time travel tribulations
Quick, call the Time Cops to sort out this paradox!
Your PHONE is slowly KILLING YOU
Doctors find new Digitillnesses - 'text neck' and 'telepressure'
Reuse the Force, Luke: SpaceX's Elon Musk reveals X-WING designs
And a floating carrier for recyclable rockets
Britain's HUMAN DNA-strewing Moon mission rakes in £200k
3 days, and Kickstarter moves lander 37% nearer takeoff
Rosetta science team thinks Philae might come to life in the spring
And disclose the biggest surprise of Comet 67P
Bond villains lament as Wicked Lasers withdraw death ray
Want to arm that shark? Better get in there quick
prev story

Whitepapers

Driving business with continuous operational intelligence
Introducing an innovative approach offered by ExtraHop for producing continuous operational intelligence.
A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
How to determine if cloud backup is right for your servers
Two key factors, technical feasibility and TCO economics, that backup and IT operations managers should consider when assessing cloud backup.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Internet Security Threat Report 2014
An overview and analysis of the year in global threat activity: identify, analyze, and provide commentary on emerging trends in the dynamic threat landscape.