Air Force launches first of many reusable rocket ships

Air Force teaming with NASA to develop reusable rockets

Air Force spacecraft
One of the Air Force's strategic future technologies was clearly on display this week as it successfully launched the X-37B reusable spacecraft into orbit for an indeterminate amount of time. 

The X-37B carrying a super-secret payload, will provide a flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and net satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology be efficiently transported to and from the space environment where it will need to function, the Air Force stated.   

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A number of new technologies will also be tested on the X-37B but Air Force officials did not describe those technologies. Another X-37 is expected to launch in the next year or so.  

The program though is likely a precursor to future Air Force spacecraft. 

Last month the Air Force said it would launch a program that would bring it reusable rockets that could carry military payloads into space and return to Earth. 

Known as the Reusable Booster System (RBS) Pathfinder, the spacecraft would consist of an autonomous, reusable, rocket-powered first stage with an expendable upper stage.  The reusable first stage would launch vertically and carry the expendable ship to a particular point in orbit. The reusable portion would return to the launch base, landing aircraft-style on a runway, the Air Force stated.  

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One of the most direct ways for the return flight to take place is known as a rocket-back maneuver where upon delivery of its payload, the rocket would immediately swing around or reverse direction and use its main engine to fly directly back to the launch site, the Air Force stated.  The return to launch site maneuver is completed with an unpowered reentry and gliding flight and landing.

According to an Aviation Week article Pathfinder is envisaged as a four-phase, 48-month, $33 million program. Up to three companies would be awarded Phase 1 study contracts totaling $4.5 million, after which one team would be selected to design the demonstrator and conduct first a propulsion-system ground test then at least two booster flights followed by three or more rocket-back tests. 

Such space work is hardly new to the Air Force.  Recently NASA said it would partner with the US Air Force Research Laboratory to develop a technology roadmap for use of reusable commercial spaceships. 

The study of reusable launch vehicle will focus on identifying technologies and assessing their potential use to accelerate the development of commercial reusable launch vehicles that have improved reliability, availability, launch turn-time, robustness and significantly lower costs than current launch systems, NASA stated.  The study results will provide roadmaps with recommended government technology tasks and milestones for different vehicle categories.

NASA is also looking into developing hypersonic air or spacecraft that could travel in the Earth's atmosphere or between here and other planets. The space agency recently announced a $45 million contract with longtime partner ERC Inc., for just such space vehicle research.  

NASA has other ongoing hypersonic research as well.  For example, the space agency is working with the Air Force to develop aircraft that can fly at over five-times the speed of sound or faster. When NASA and the Air Force announced their work they said hypersonic aerodynamics research is critical to the Air Force's interest in long-range and space operations. 

The Air Force soon will test another hypersonic aircraft - the  Mach 6 capable X-51A WaveRider.   When it finally flies the X-51A flight tests are intended to demonstrate the engines can achieve their desired speed without disintegrating.  While the X-51 looks like a large rocket, its applications could change the way aircraft or spaceships are designed,  fly into space, support reconnaissance missions and handle long-distance flight operations. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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