Air Force reveals tiny but amazing bit of super-secret unmanned spacecraft flight plan

Not much is usually known of the Air Force’s X-37B flights

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Credit: Air Force

The forthcoming unmanned, almost entirely secretive X-37B spacecraft will include a test version of an ion engine that could keep spaceships in orbit longer while making them more maneuverable.

The Air Force Research Laboratory made the unprecedented announcement that that X-37B will soon blast into space with what’s known as a Hall thruster experiment onboard the flight vehicle.

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From the Air Force lab release: “The Hall thruster that will fly on the X-37B experiment is a modified version of the units that have propelled Space and Missile Systems Center’s first three Advanced Extremely High Frequency military communications spacecraft.  A Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon.  While producing comparatively low thrust relative to conventional rocket engines, Hall thrusters provide significantly greater specific impulse, or fuel economy.  This results in increased payload carrying capacity and a greater number of on-orbit maneuvers for a spacecraft using Hall thrusters rather than traditional rocket engines. The experiment will include collection of telemetry from the Hall thruster operating in the space environment as well as measurement of the thrust imparted on the vehicle.  The resulting data will be used to validate and improve Hall thruster and environmental modeling capabilities, which enhance the ability to extrapolate ground test results to actual on-orbit performance. “

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The X-37B

This will be the spacecraft’s fourth mission -- the first three flights have accumulated a total of 1367 days of on-orbit experimentation prior to successful landings and recoveries at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA., the Air Force stated.

According to the Air Force the spacecraft is based on NASA's X-37 design (NASA's X-37 system was never built) and is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space technology experimentation and testing. Upon command from the ground, the orbital test vehicle autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway.

 The Air Force discloses this much information on the X-37B:

Details:

Prime Contractor: Boeing

Height: 9 feet, 6 inches (2.9 meters)

Length: 29 feet, 3 inches (8.9 meters)

Wingspan: 14 feet, 11 inches (4.5 meters)

Launch Weight: 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms)

Power: Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries

 Mission The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments that can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.

Features The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Based on NASA's X-37 design, the unmanned OTV is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space technology experimentation and testing. Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway. The X-37B is the first vehicle since NASA's Shuttle Orbiter with the ability to return experiments to Earth. Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.

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