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Why not a lifting-body job this time, then?

NASA says it couldn't use a lifting body on the shuttle as such a large one would be very hard to design - but that wouldn't apply in the case of the little X-37B. Straight stub wings were rejected for the shuttle mainly because the US military wanted to be able to fly it from Vandenberg air force base in California on cunning one-orbit flights that would allow rendezvous with a satellite without anyone being aware that such had taken place. This meant a need for bigger delta wings for "cross range" - the ability to steer sideways during re-entry in order to avoid being left behind by the planet's rotation and coming down in the Pacific.

The X-37B looks very much as though it might be able to perform such a mission, if required. While it is too small to actually capture and bring back another nation's spacecraft in You Only Live Twice style satnappings (except perhaps very small ones) it could easily make a close pass to one without anyone knowing. Most satellites, being focused on their task, have no "situational awareness" of what is happening close by them in space, and a "Mission 3A/3B" X-37B flight on certain spysat style high-angle orbits would be very difficult if not impossible for other nations to monitor from the ground.

Detail on the X-37B's wings. Credit: USAF

Still no lifting body.

Thus the winged X-37B would seem able to get a close visual or electronic look at foreign spacecraft of interest - or perhaps meddle with them using the various new active electronic- and cyber-warfare technologies now coming out - all without flying over any places where it might be tracked by persons not approved of by the US Air Force.

That might offer a clue as to why two such craft have already been ordered when the "fractionated" satellite concept has yet to move out of the design-study stage - and why they have triangular wings rather than straight-stub ones or lifting bodies.

Of course, it's just as plausible that the X-37B looks a bit shuttley simply because it's cheaper to build a mini version of a well-understood machine than do something new. But that doesn't mean the Air Force's original, covert-mission reasons to make the shuttle that shape have gone away. ®

Bootnote

*Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft. The idea is to have the various components of a normal big satellite organised in a wirelessly-linked cluster of small orbiting machines, a so-called virtual satellite. The idea is that this would avoid the expense, limited launch opportunities, inability to upgrade and high risks of critical failure that come with big integrated sats.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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