Monday, October 10, 2011

Tomorrow's Space Plane: Today

The super-secretive X-37B Space Plane owned and operated by the U.S. Air Force has been so successful they are now planning to build a slightly larger version which could be used to ferry astronauts and supplies in and out of low earth orbit; to the International Space Station or some other orbital facility such as a Bigelow Space Hotel.

This is a tall order for such a small craft, but the USAF believes they can scale up the design (slightly) and make room for five or six astronauts. In fact, a larger version of their re-useable space plane is already complete. Called the X-37C (Because have almost no imagination) it is about 1.5 times the size, give or take, but still much, much smaller (and simpler) than the space shuttles on which it was based.

It seems only logical that the USAF develop their space plane to its fullest capacity. If their idea works, they should use it. Adding a cargo module would be fairly simple (they say) and the space plane doesn't even require a pilot or much ground crew, so that means more passengers, less working crew.

The other good thing about the X-37B is the fact it remained in-orbit for 244 days, performed flawlessly, landed, was re-fitted and launch again in a matter of weeks. It seems to be a much hardier spacecraft than any re-useable craft we have seen so far. If the USAF wants to launch astronauts, I say, go for it!

Last year, the X-37B completed its first test mission of 244 days and demonstrated the viability of a small test platform that can return experiments for post-flight inspection and analysis, Grantz reported. "We validated all the autonomous guidance, navigation and control, aerodynamics and aero-heating and the thermal protection system," he said. [Photos: Air Force's 2nd Secret X-37B Mission]

Grantz said the maiden voyage of the unpiloted X-37B proved highly successful after its launch atop an Atlas 5 501 booster. Its landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California required no ground intervention during the entire orbital re-entry.

Turnaround of that first vehicle for its next flight has required less time and hours than expected supporting the concept of an affordable, reusable system. In fact, the deployable and stowable solar array used on that first flight is onboard the third X-37B mission, he said.

"From a test vehicle standpoint, the 244 days is the longest duration on orbit for a reusable spacecraft," Grantz told the audience.

Click here to read more about the X-37B.

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