The US Air Force has launched a new unmanned reusable shuttle X-37B. This is a classified project, about which little is known, in particular, its unusually small dimensions: its length is 8.23 meters, a wingspan of 4.6 meters, and a height of less than 3 meters. The use of the apparatus, however, can help to solve a number of military and economic problems. The VZGLYAD newspaper tried to figure out what these tasks might be.
The launch of the new American unmanned reusable shuttle X-37B, for some unknown reason postponed for several days, was eventually made on Thursday evening, reports the Associated Press.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle launched from the Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida. He must spend nine months in orbit, then the autopilot program will return him to the air force base in California.
The program of the unmanned mini-shuttle, developed in the United States since 1999 - first under the auspices of NASA, and now the Air Force - is one of the most secret in the history of American astronautics: apart from the overall size and appearance, practically nothing is known about the mysterious apparatus, not even the mission. which he will perform.
US Air Force Assistant Secretary for Space Program Gary Payton said only that the main priority of the mission will be testing the automatic navigation system X-37B, as well as finding out the financial costs of preparing the device for a re-launch, RIA Novosti reports with reference to Reuters.
“At the moment, we plan to receive a second unit by 2011, if everything goes well during the first flight,” added Payton.
Recall that the start of the mysterious shuttle was previously scheduled for Monday evening, April 19 (it was still Sunday in Moscow), but the launch was postponed due to the fact that NASA extended the orbital flight of the Discovery shuttle by a day, postponing its return due to weather conditions … It is known that the spacecraft (SC) was delivered to Cape Canaveral in late March and mounted on an Atlas V launch vehicle in early April.
Very little is known about the new spacecraft. It is a light aerospace aircraft (VKS) of extremely small dimensions: its length is 8.23 meters, its wingspan is only 4.6 meters, and the height with the landing gear extended is just under 3 meters. The take-off weight of the ship is about 5 tons, and the size of the cargo compartment, according to the Air Force, is commensurate with the size of the cargo platform of a pickup truck.
The X-37B is equipped with two Rocketdyne 2/3 reusable engines fueled by kerosene (fuel) and hydrogen peroxide (oxidizer). Additional features of the spacecraft include a retractable folding solar battery, which allows saving battery life in flight. The engines, in contrast to the engines of the "big shuttle", on which they were switched on from the moment of launch, are intended only for orbital maneuvers. Basically, the ship resembles a smaller shuttle in shape, it has the same aerodynamic design with the exception of a two-fin V-shaped tail. It is curious that a large manned ship could have looked like this, but at a certain stage, the spaced tail was abandoned due to the placement of an additional engine in the tail.
The X-37B will return to Earth on its own: at the first stage - in free gliding mode, at the landing stage - in simple airplane mode. The intended landing site is Vandenberg Air Force Base, located northwest of Los Angeles, California. The reserve strip is Edwards Air Force Base.
It is reported that the first contract for the X-37 technology demonstrator was signed by NASA and Boeing in 1999. The development cost of the experimental spacecraft was $ 173 million. In turn, the program was preceded by tests of a 37% reduced prototype under the X-40 index, on which the ship's automatic landing systems were tested. Throw tests of the Kh-40 took place in 1998 at the Edwards airbase; the model was dropped from the CH-47 heavy transport helicopter. The device, dropped from a height of 2000 meters, came exactly in the center of the runway.
The first aerodynamic tests of the X-37 took place in September 2004, when the project came under the jurisdiction of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The ship lifted into the air the White Knight aircraft - a special carrier of light spacecraft, from which the SS-1 spacecraft designed by Bert Rutan (like the carrier itself, by the way) was once launched - the first manned spacecraft, created exclusively at the expense of private investors.
What are the capabilities of the Future-X Reusable Launch Vehicle mini-shuttle? Most observers predict military use for it, and rightfully so. Indeed, such a ship, which is unlikely to be capable of carrying any serious strategic system, can turn out to be a very useful scout, compensating for the lack of reconnaissance satellites with its maneuverability - a rigid attachment to a certain orbit. One can imagine a certain unmanned fighter of enemy spacecraft, equipped with cannons, missiles or, in the long term, a laser. But most likely, the increased secrecy of the project has a commercial component.
“You shouldn't send a Mack truck into space if a Toyota Celica coupe performs the same task,” one of the project participants, aerodynamics specialist Mark Lewis of the University of Maryland, described the difference between a conventional shuttle and the X-37B. As a station wagon and research vehicle, the X-37B can be really valuable. A lightweight, maneuverable vehicle capable of delivering research results or an emergency satellite for repairs anywhere in the world is a very attractive project. At the same time, it does not necessarily have to be withdrawn by an American rocket. Thus, the United States may well select a very interesting niche for itself in the commercial launch market, which is now tightly occupied by Russia, France and the PRC.