Boeing X-37

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X-37
Boeing X-37B inside payload fairing before launch.jpg
The OTV-1 X-37B in April 2010, inside its payload fairing prior to launch
Role Spaceplane
National origin United States
Manufacturer Boeing
First flight 7 April 2006 (first drop test)
22 April – 3 December 2010 (first spaceflight)
Status Testing; two long-duration spaceflights completed, a third underway[1][2]
Primary users NASA/DARPA (X-37A)
United States Air Force (X-37B)
Number built 2
Developed from Boeing X-40

The Boeing X-37, also known as the X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), is an American reusable unmanned spacecraft. It is boosted into space by a rocket, then re-enters Earth's atmosphere and lands as a spaceplane. The X-37 is operated by the United States Air Force for orbital spaceflight missions intended to demonstrate reusable space technologies.[3] It is a 120%-scaled derivative of the earlier Boeing X-40.[4] As of 2013 it holds the world record for being the smallest robotic, unmanned space plane.[5]

The X-37 began as a NASA project in 1999, before being transferred to the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004. It conducted its first flight as a drop test on 7 April 2006, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The spaceplane's first orbital mission, USA-212, was launched on 22 April 2010 using an Atlas V rocket. Its successful return to Earth on 3 December 2010 was the first test of the vehicle's heat shield and hypersonic aerodynamic handling. A second X-37 was launched on 5 March 2011, with the mission designation USA-226; it returned to Earth on 16 June 2012.[1] A third X-37 mission, USA-240, launched successfully on 11 December 2012.[6]

Development[edit]

Origins[edit]

In 1999, NASA selected Boeing Integrated Defense Systems to design and develop an orbital vehicle, built by the California branch of Boeing's Phantom Works. Over a four-year period, a total of $192 million was contributed to the project, with NASA contributing $109 million, the U.S. Air Force $16 million, and Boeing $67 million. In late 2002, a new $301-million contract was awarded to Boeing as part of NASA's Space Launch Initiative framework.[7]

1999 artist's rendering of the X-37 spacecraft.

The X-37 was transferred from NASA to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on 13 September 2004.[8] Thereafter, the program became a classified project, although it is not known whether DARPA will maintain this status indefinitely. DARPA promoted the X-37 as part of the independent space policy that the United States Department of Defense has pursued since the 1986 Challenger disaster.

The X-37 was originally designed to be carried into orbit in the Space Shuttle's cargo bay, but underwent redesign for launch on a Delta IV or comparable rocket after it was determined that a shuttle flight would be uneconomical.[9] The X-37's aerodynamic design was derived from the Space Shuttle, hence the X-37 has a similar lift-to-drag ratio, and a lower cross range at higher altitudes and Mach numbers compared to DARPA's Hypersonic Technology Vehicle.[10]

As part of its mission goals, the X-37 was designed to rendezvous with satellites to refuel them, or to replace failed solar arrays using a robotic arm. Its payload could also support Space Control (Defensive Counter-Space, Offensive Counter-Space), Force Enhancement and Force Application systems.[11] An early requirement for the spacecraft called for a delta-v of 7,000 mph (3.1 km/s) to change its orbit.[12]

Glide testing[edit]

The vehicle that was used as an atmospheric drop test glider had no propulsion system. Instead of an operational vehicle's payload bay doors, it had an enclosed and reinforced upper fuselage structure to allow it to be mated with a mothership. In September 2004, DARPA announced that for its initial atmospheric drop tests the X-37 would be launched from the Scaled Composites White Knight, a high-altitude research aircraft.[13]

The Scaled Composites White Knight was used to launch the X-37A on glide tests.

On 21 June 2005, the X-37A completed a captive-carry flight underneath the White Knight from Mojave Spaceport in Mojave, California.[14][15] Through the second half of 2005, the X-37A underwent structural upgrades, including the reinforcement of its nose wheel supports. Further captive-carry flight tests and the first drop test were initially expected to occur in mid-February 2006. The X-37's public debut was scheduled for its first free flight on 10 March 2006, but was canceled due to an Arctic storm.[16] The next flight attempt, on 15 March 2006, was canceled due to high winds.[16]

On 24 March 2006, the X-37 flew again, but a datalink failure prevented a free flight, and the vehicle returned to the ground still attached to its White Knight carrier aircraft. On 7 April 2006, the X-37 made its first free glide flight. During landing, the vehicle overran the runway and sustained minor damage.[17] Following the vehicle's extended downtime for repairs, the program moved from Mojave to Air Force Plant 42 (KPMD) in Palmdale, California for the remainder of the flight test program. White Knight continued to be based at Mojave, though it was ferried to Plant 42 when test flights were scheduled. Five additional flights were performed,[N 1] two of which resulted in X-37 releases with successful landings. These two free flights occurred on 18 August 2006 and 26 September 2006.[18]

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle[edit]

On 17 November 2006, the U.S. Air Force announced that it would develop its own variant from NASA's X-37A. The Air Force version was designated the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). The OTV program was built on earlier industry and government efforts by DARPA, NASA and the Air Force, and was led by the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, in partnership with NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory. Boeing was the prime contractor for the OTV program.[19][20][21] The X-37B was designed to remain in orbit for up to 270 days at a time.[22] The Secretary of the Air Force stated that the OTV program would focus on "risk reduction, experimentation, and operational concept development for reusable space vehicle technologies, in support of long-term developmental space objectives."[19]

The X-37B was originally scheduled for launch in the payload bay of the Space Shuttle, but following the 2003 Columbia disaster, it was transferred to a Delta II 7920. The X-37B was subsequently transferred to a shrouded configuration on the Atlas V rocket, following concerns over the unshrouded spacecraft's aerodynamic properties during launch.[23] Following their missions, X-37B spacecraft land on a runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, with Edwards Air Force Base as an alternate site.[24] In 2010, manufacturing work began on the second X-37B, OTV-2,[25] which conducted its maiden launch in March 2011.[26]

Design[edit]

At the time of its maiden launch, the X-37 (far right) was the smallest and lightest orbital spaceplane yet flown. Both the North American X-15 and SpaceShipOne were suborbital. Of the spaceplanes shown, only the X-37 and Buran conducted unmanned spaceflights.

The X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle is a reusable robotic spaceplane. It is a 120%-scale derivative of the Boeing X-40,[7] measuring over 29 feet (8.8 m) in length, and features two angled tail fins.[3][27] The X-37 launches atop an Atlas V version 501 rocket with a Centaur second stage.[3][20] The X-37 is designed to operate in a speed range of up to Mach 25 on its reentry.[28][29]

Among the technologies demonstrated in the X-37 include an improved thermal protection system, enhanced avionics, an autonomous guidance system and an advanced airframe.[9] The spaceplane's thermal protection system is built upon previous generations of atmospheric reentry spacecraft,[11] incorporating silica ceramic tiles.[30] The X-37's avionics suite was used by Boeing to develop its CST-100 manned spacecraft.[31] According to NASA, the development of the X-37 will "aid in the design and development of NASA's Orbital Space Plane, designed to provide a crew rescue and crew transport capability to and from the International Space Station".[32]

The X-37 is independently powered by one Aerojet AR2-3 engine using storable propellants, providing thrust of 6,600 pounds-force (29.341 kN).[33] The human-rated AR2-3 engine had been used on the dual-power NF-104A astronaut training vehicle, and was given a new flight certification for use on the X-37 with hydrogen peroxide/JP-8 propellants.[34]

The X-37 lands automatically upon returning from orbit, and is the second reusable spacecraft to have such a capability, after the Soviet Buran shuttle.[35] The X-37 is the smallest and lightest orbital spaceplane flown to date; with a launch mass of around 11,000 pounds (5,000 kg), it is approximately a quarter the size of the Space Shuttle orbiter.[36]

Operational history[edit]

OTV-1[edit]

OTV-1 sits on the runway at Vandenberg AFB after landing, 3 December 2010.

OTV-1, the first X-37B, launched on its first mission – USA-212 – on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on 22 April 2010 at 23:58 GMT. The spacecraft was placed into low Earth orbit for testing.[20] While the U.S. Air Force revealed few orbital details of the mission, amateur astronomers claimed to have identified the spacecraft in orbit and shared their findings. A worldwide network of amateur astronomers reported that, on 22 May 2010, the spacecraft was in an inclination of 39.99 degrees, circling the Earth once every 90 minutes on an orbit 249 by 262 miles (401 by 422 km).[37][38] OTV-1 reputedly passed over the same given spot on Earth every four days, and operated at an altitude of 255 miles (410 km), which is typical for military surveillance satellites.[39] Such an orbit is also common among civilian LEO satellites, and the spaceplane's altitude was the same as that of the ISS and most other manned spacecraft.

The U.S. Air Force announced on 30 November 2010 that OTV-1 would return for a landing during the 3–6 December timeframe.[40][41] As scheduled, OTV-1 de-orbited, reentered Earth's atmosphere, and landed successfully at Vandenberg AFB on 3 December 2010, at 1:16 PST (09:16 UTC),[42][43][44] conducting America's first autonomous orbital landing onto a runway; the first spacecraft to perform such a feat was the Soviet Buran shuttle in 1988. In all, OTV-1 spent 224 days in space.[45] OTV-1 suffered a tire blowout during landing and sustained minor damage to its underside.[25]

OTV-2[edit]

OTV-2, the second X-37B, launched on its inaugural mission, designated USA-226,[46] aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on 5 March 2011.[47] The mission was classified and described by the U.S. military as an effort to test new space technologies.[48] On 29 November 2011, the U.S. Air Force announced that it would extend the mission of USA-226 beyond the 270-day baseline design duration.[45] In April 2012, General William L. Shelton of the Air Force Space Command declared the ongoing mission a "spectacular success".[49]

On 30 May 2012, the Air Force stated that OTV-2 would complete its mission and land at Vandenberg AFB in June 2012.[50][51] The spacecraft landed autonomously on 16 June 2012, having spent 469 days in space.[1][52]

OTV-3[edit]

OTV-3, the second mission for the first X-37B and the third X-37B mission overall, was originally scheduled to launch on 25 October 2012,[53] but was postponed because of an engine issue with the Atlas V launch vehicle.[54] The X-37B was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral on 11 December 2012.[6][36][55] The launch was designated USA-240,[56][57] and as of March 2014, the vehicle remains in orbit.[58] During March 2014, the X-37B broke its endurance record when its surpassed 470 days in orbit.[59]

Controversies[edit]

In 2010, Tom Burghardt wrote for Space Daily that the X-37B could be used as a spy satellite or to deliver weapons from space.[60] The Pentagon has denied claims that the X-37B's mission supports the development of space-based weapons.[60] In January 2012, allegations were made that the X-37B was being used to spy on China's Tiangong-1 space station module.[61] Former U.S. Air Force orbital analyst Brian Weeden later refuted this claim, emphasizing that the different orbits of the two spacecraft precluded any practical surveillance fly-bys.[62]

Variants[edit]

X-37A[edit]

The X-37A was the initial NASA version of the spacecraft; the X-37A Approach and Landing Test Vehicle (ALTV) was used in drop glide tests in 2005 and 2006.[15][63]

X-37B[edit]

The X-37B is a modified version of the NASA X-37A, intended for the U.S. Air Force.[3] It conducted orbital test missions in 2010, 2011 and 2012.[64]

X-37C[edit]

In 2011, Boeing announced plans for a scaled-up variant of the X-37B, referring to the spacecraft as the X-37C. The X-37C would be between 165% and 180% larger than the X-37B, allowing it to transport up to six astronauts inside a pressurized compartment housed in the cargo bay. Its proposed launch vehicle is the Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle.[65] The X-37C may compete with Boeing's CST-100 commercial space capsule.[66]

Specifications[edit]

X-37B[edit]

Data from USAF,[3][11]Boeing,[67] Air & Space Magazine,[63] and PhysOrg.[68]

General characteristics

Performance

See also[edit]

Related development
  • Boeing X-40, a subsonic test glider, direct predecessor to the X-37B
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Source of flights: mission markings posted on side of White Knight aircraft.
  2. ^ This figure is based on pre-launch design estimates; it does not reflect the spacecraft's actual performance capacity. During its 2011–2012 test mission, the OTV-2 X-37B spent over 460 days in space.

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b c "X-37B lands this morning at Vandenberg AFB." Santa Maria Times, 16 June 2012.
  2. ^ Thornill, Ted. "Revealed: How America's secret space plane has been in orbit for over a year – and no one knows what it's doing." Daily Mail, 8 March 2012. Retrieved: 29 April 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Factsheet: X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle". U.S. Air Force. 14 April 2010. Retrieved 16 February 2013.
  4. ^ Covault, Craig. "USAF To Launch First Spaceplane Demonstrator." Aviation Week and Space Technology, 3 August 2008. Retrieved: 20 May 2012.
  5. ^ Glenday, Craig, ed. (2012). Guinness World Records 2013. Guinness. p. 29. ISBN 9781904994879. 
  6. ^ a b "Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Launches on Third Mission." Universe Today, 11 December 2012. Retrieved: 11 December 2012.
  7. ^ a b "X-37 Technology Demonstrator: Blazing the trail for the next generation of space transportation systems". NASA, September 2003. Retrieved: 23 April 2010.
  8. ^ Berger, Brian. "NASA Transfers X-37 Project to DARPA". Space.com, 15 September 2004.
  9. ^ a b Yenne 2005, p. 277.
  10. ^ "Air Force Bloggers Roundtable: Air Force set to launch first X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle". Department of Defense, 20 April 2010. Retrieved: 23 April 2010.
  11. ^ a b c Jameson, Major Austin D., USAF. "X-37 Space Vehicle: Starting a New Age in Space Control?" dtic.mil, April 2001.
  12. ^ "X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle". everything2.com. Retrieved: 8 December 2010.
  13. ^ Berger, Brian. "DARPA takes on space plane project". MSNBC, 16 September 2004.
  14. ^ David, Leonard. "White Knight carries X-37 aloft". CNN, 23 June 2005. Retrieved: 15 October 2012.
  15. ^ a b Parsch, Andreas. "Boeing X-37 / X-40." Designation-Systems.net, updated November 2009. Retrieved: 2 August 2012.
  16. ^ a b "Mojave web log entries". MojaveWeblog via Internet Archive. Retrieved: 15 October 2012.
  17. ^ David, Leonard. "X-37 Flies At Mojave But Encounters Landing Problems". Space.com, 7 April 2006.
  18. ^ "X-37 Test Flight B-Roll (No Audio)". U.S. Air Force via YouTube.com, 22 April 2010.
  19. ^ a b David, Leonard. "U.S. Air Force Pushes For Orbital Test Vehicle." Space.com, 17 November 2006. Retrieved: 17 November 2006.
  20. ^ a b c Clark, Stephen. "Atlas rocket delivers Air Force spaceplane to orbit". Spaceflight Now, 22 April 2010.
  21. ^ Clark, Stephen. "Air Force spaceplane is an odd bird with a twisted past". Spaceflight Now, 2 April 2010. Retrieved: 3 April 2010.
  22. ^ Clark, Stephen. "Air Force X-37B spaceplane arrives in Florida for launch". Spaceflight Now, 25 February 2010. Retrieved: 3 March 2010.
  23. ^ Krebs, Gunter. "X-37B". Gunter's Space Page. Retrieved: 5 August 2008.
  24. ^ Covault, Craig. "USAF To Launch First Spaceplane Demonstrator". Aviation Week and Space Technology, 3 August 2008.
  25. ^ a b Norris, Guy. "Second X-37B Prepared For Launch". Aviation Week, 7 December 2010.
  26. ^ "Second secret space shuttle blasts into orbit ... but what does it actually do up there?" Daily Mail Online, 7 March 2011. Retrieved: 15 January 2012.
  27. ^ Miller 2001, p. 377.
  28. ^ David, Leonard. "Mothership adopts a new space plane". NBC News. 27 May 2005. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
  29. ^ "X-37 Demonstrator to Test Future Launch Technologies in Orbit and Reentry Environments". NASA MSFC. May 2003. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
  30. ^ "Mr. Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, Media Teleconference (Pentagon), X-37B Launch". Defense.gov, 20 April 2010. Retrieved: 3 December 2010.
  31. ^ David, Leonard. "Boeing's New Crew-Carrying Spaceship Taking Shape." Space.com, 5 April 2012. Retrieved: 17 April 2012.
  32. ^ "Pilotless US space plane lands after 469 days in orbit". SpaceDaily.com, 17 June 2012. Retrieved: 18 June 2012.
  33. ^ a b "Boeing X-37 Technology Demonstrator, USA". airforce-technology.com. Retrieved: 12 December 2012.
  34. ^ Hebert, Bartt. "Peroxide (H2O2) Test Programs, AR2-3 Flight Certification". SDC Operations, NASA Engineering and Test Directorate, 24 July 2009.
  35. ^ Chertok, Boris. "Rockets and People" Raketi i lyudi. NASA History Series, January 2005, p. 179. Retrieved: 8 July 2011.
  36. ^ a b Halvorson, Todd. "AF’s X-37B mini-shuttle shrouded in secrecy." Florida Today via Military Times, 9 December 2012. Retrieved: 10 December 2012.
  37. ^ David, Leonard. "Secret X-37B Space Plane Spotted by Amateur Skywatchers". Space.com, 22 May 2010.
  38. ^ "Amateur astronomers unravel X37-B orbit, say likely use for deploying spy satellites." news.com.au, 24 May 2010.
  39. ^ Broad, William J. "Surveillance is Suspected as Spacecraft’s Main Role". The New York Times, 21 May 2010. Retrieved: 22 May 2010.
  40. ^ "Preparations underway for first landing of X-37B". Vandenberg Air Force Base, 30th Space Wing Public Affairs, U.S. Air Force, 30 November 2010. Retrieved: 21 May 2012.
  41. ^ "USAF X-37B Landing Slated for Dec. 3–6". Aviation Week, 30 November 2010. Retrieved: 1 December 2010.
  42. ^ Clark, Stephen. "Home again: U.S. military space plane returns to Earth". Spaceflight Now, 3 December 2010. Retrieved: 3 December 2010.
  43. ^ a b Warwicj, Graham. "USAF's X-37B Spaceplane Returns to Earth". Aviation Week, 3 December 2010. Retrieved: 2 June 2012.
  44. ^ Rincon, Paul. "X-37B US military spaceplane returns to Earth." BBC, 3 December 2010. Retrieved: 3 December 2010.
  45. ^ a b Clark, Stephen. "Military space shuttle receives mission extension." Spaceflight Now, 29 November 2011. Retrieved: 1 December 2011.
  46. ^ McCants, Mike. "OTV 2 (USA 226) Satellite details 2011-010A NORAD 37375'." n2yo.com.. Retrieved: 8 April 2012.
  47. ^ Hennigan, W.J. "Air Force hopes to launch X-37B space plane after weather delay." Los Angeles Times, 5 March 2011. Retrieved: 2 August 2011.
  48. ^ Wall, Mike. "Secretive X-37B Space Plane Launches on New Mystery Mission". Space.com, 5 March 2011. Retrieved: 8 April 2012.
  49. ^ David, Leonard. "Air Force's secret X-37B a 'spectacular success'." MSNBC, 9 May 2012. Retrieved: 10 May 2012.
  50. ^ "Preparations underway for X-37B landing". Vandenberg.af.mil, 30 May 2012. Retrieved: 1 June 2012.
  51. ^ David, Leonard. "Air Force's Secretive X-37B Space Plane Will Land Soon." Space.com, 30 May 2012. Retrieved: 2 June 2012.
  52. ^ Wall, Mike. "Air Force's secret X-37B space plane lands in Calif. after mystery mission." Space.com, 16 June 2012.
  53. ^ Ray, Justin. "Another Atlas 5 readied to launch mini space shuttle." Spaceflight Now, 18 September 2012. Retrieved: 4 October 2012.
  54. ^ McCullough, Amy. "X-37B Launch Delayed." Air Force magazine, 25 October 2012. Retrieved: 11 December 2012.
  55. ^ David, Leonard. "New Delay for Mysterious Military Space Plane Launch." Space.com, 21 November 2012. Retrieved: 26 November 2012.
  56. ^ "NSSDC ID: 2012-071A". National Space Science Data Center. NASA. Retrieved 24 December 2012. 
  57. ^ Badger, Eric (11 December 2012). "Air Force launches 3rd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle". USAF news. U.S. Air Force. Archived from the original on 21 February 2013. Retrieved 24 December 2012. 
  58. ^ David, Leonard (27 March 2014). "US Air Force's Secretive X-37B Space Plane Shatters Orbital Endurance Record". Space.com. Retrieved 2 April 2014. 
  59. ^ Air Force’s X-37B Breaks Orbit Record - Defensetech.org, 1 April 2014
  60. ^ a b Burghardt, Tom. "The Militarization of Outer Space: The Pentagon's Space Warriors." Spacedaily.com, 11 May 2010. Retrieved: 15 October 2012.
  61. ^ Parnell, Brid-Aine. "US 'space warplane' may be spying on Chinese spacelab." The Register, 6 January 2012. Retrieved: 13 January 2012.
  62. ^ Corocoto, Genalyn. "Expert: U. S. Secret Space Plane Not Likely 'Spying' on China Module." International Business Times, 9 January 2012. Retrieved: 13 January 2012.
  63. ^ a b Klesius, Michael. "Space Shuttle Jr." Air & Space Magazine, 1 January 2010.
  64. ^ Atkinson, Nancy. "Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Launches on Third Mission." Universe Today, 11 December 2012.
  65. ^ David, Leonard. "Secretive X-37B US Space Plane Could Evolve to Carry Astronauts". Space.com, 7 October 2011. Retrieved: 10 October 2011.
  66. ^ "Boeing vs. Boeing". Citizens in Space, 25 March 2012. Retrieved: 21 December 2012.
  67. ^ "X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle". Boeing. Retrieved: 6 December 2010.
  68. ^ Antczak, John. Associated Press. "Air Force to launch robotic winged space plane". PhysOrg, 3 April 2010. Retrieved: 16 February 2013.
  69. ^ Molczan, Ted. "Re: X-37B OTV 2-1 search elements." satobs.org, 22 May 2012. Retrieved: 2 June 2012.
  70. ^ Evans, Michael. "Launch of secret US space ship masks even more secret launch of new weapon". The Times, 24 April 2010. Retrieved: 25 April 2010.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Bentley, Matthew A. (2008). Spaceplanes: From Airport to Spaceport. New York: Springer. ISBN 978-0-387-76509-9.
  • Gump, David P. (1989). Space Enterprise: Beyond NASA. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers. ISBN 978-0-275-93314-2.
  • Miller, Jay (2001). The X-Planes: X-1 to X-45. Hinckley, UK: Midland. ISBN 1-85780-109-1.
  • Yenne, Bill (2005). The Story of the Boeing Company. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Zenith Press. ISBN 978-0-7603-2333-5.

External links[edit]