Tuesday, 19 June 2012 11:19
June 19, 2012
Only weeks after SpaceX successfully completed its industry-redefining trip to the International Space Station, the U.S. aerospace sector is celebrating another dramatic victory with the touchdown of the Air Force's semi-secret X-37B space plane. Even if not everyone is sure what exactly the victory means and to whom.
Up, down and up again
Wired reports that the X-37B is the second in a line of reusable space planes that have been in development by aerospace and defense giant Boeing since the 1990s.
While the X-37s are are relatively small, with about the storage capacity of a large pickup truck, the space planes could prove to be an important resource for the U.S. space program based solely on the fact that they are sturdy and reusable.
The U.S. lost most of its spacefaring ability last year with the retirement of the country's long-running shuttle program, but in particular it lost access to the kind of reliable reusable spaceship that can help keep a lid on the cost of space travel. While the Dragon capsule produced by SpaceX offers the ability to both bring up cargo to the ISS and return materials back to Earth, a feature that none of current automated ships boast, it is nonetheless a one-flight craft.
Secrets in space
The first iteration of the new space plane, dubbed X-37A, was launched two years ago in April, before returning that December.
So far no officials from the Air Force have explained the ultimate goal of project or the possible uses of the plane, though speculation has ranged from carrying supplies to the International Space Station to spying on the new Chinese Tiangong space station. NewScientist reports some have even suggested that the plane could be used to launch a surprise nuclear strike.
However, spending more than seven months in orbit, the X-37A demonstrated one of the key features Boeing focused on its design: durability.
The project, funded as it is by an agency with no explicit clear imperative in space, sought to create not only a reusable space plane but one that would be long-lived and versatile enough to adapt to a variety of different missions based on the military's needs at the time.
This goal was highlighted even further by the flight of the X-37B, which was launched in early March of last year and remained in orbit for a record-setting 469 days. With the plane rated for only nine months in orbit, the successful completion of this missions marks an impressive display of durability beyond even hopeful expectations.
"One of the goals of this mission was to see how much farther we could push the on-orbit duration," Lieutenant Colonel Tom McIntyre, the Air Force program manager for the X-37B, told Wired.
Despite the successful completion of the X-37B's "iron man" mission, the future of the program is still up in the air. Many commentators are unsure what the, inarguably expensive, space planes will ultimately be used for or whether this purpose will justify further investment. At the same time, Boeing has announced plans to shutter the plant where the craft were constructed, raising the possibility of delays and cost overruns on future iterations.
At the same time, different sources suggest widely varied implications for the space planes in light of the rapidly developing Chinese space program, which tested a similar automated spacecraft last year. Some have suggested the U.S. could maintain an edge by pursuing the development of the probes, while others have suggested they already demonstrate the country is falling behind its Asian rival.
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