April 23, 2010

US Air Force’s Mysterious Space Plane Launches

unmanned X-37B space plane

unmanned X-37B space plane

That’s the Air Force’s super-secret unmanned X-37B space plane hitching a ride on an Atlas V rocket yesterday. No one knows what its mission is. Or even when it’s coming back.

The rumors about the X-37B have been building for a few years now, ever since the project came under the auspices of the Department of Defense—and became classified—in 2004. Is it for intelligence gathering? Will it be weaponized? Or is it nothing more than orbital delivery truck? From the Air Force’s official description of the program:

“A flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment. This service directly supports the Defense Department’s technology risk-reduction efforts for new satellite systems. By providing an ‘on-orbit laboratory’ test environment, it will prove new technology and components before those technologies are committed to operational satellite programs.”

Which is not entirely helpful.

The X37B, co-developed by Boeing, is just 29 feet long and can stay in orbit for up to nine months, so it could be some time before we see it again. For now, the main objective seems to be if the Air Force can successfully retrieve it in good enough condition to re-use. And, you know, to test out the antimatter ray.

April 14, 2010

Star Wars: Neil Armstrong, Obama Spar Over NASA’s Future

Neil Armstrong - First Human to Walk on the Moon

Neil Armstrong - First Human to Walk on the Moon

The first man to walk on the moon has blasted off at the Obama administration’s stripped-down space plans, describing the president’s proposals as “devastating.” But supporters of the president’s latest plan, which will be unveiled on Thursday, insist all systems are go for an accelerated rocket program that sets new goals for the American effort in outer space.

The first man to walk on the moon has blasted off at the Obama administration’s stripped-down space plans, describing the president’s proposals as “devastating.” But supporters of the president’s latest plan, which will be unveiled on Thursday, insist all systems are go for an accelerated rocket program that sets new goals for the American effort in outer space.

Moonwalk icon Neil Armstrong, in an open letter co-signed by Apollo Commanders James Lovell and Eugene Cernan, wrote on Tuesday that “The … decision to cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating.

“America’s only path to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station will now be subject to an agreement with Russia to purchase space on their Soyuz (at a price of over 50 million dollars per seat with significant increases expected in the near future) until we have the capacity to provide transportation for ourselves. The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty….

“It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation,” the former astronauts wrote.

In another letter, released on Monday, more than two dozen Apollo-era veterans called the plan a “misguided proposal that forces NASA out of human space operations for the foreseeable future.”

The harsh criticism from the men and women celebrated for decades for having “The Right Stuff” has sharply raised interest in America’s space program in advance of Obama’s planned address on Thursday to top NASA officials at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The president will announce a set of stepping-stone achievements that will take the United States farther into space, along a range of destinations including lunar orbit, so-called “Lagrange points” (prime destinations for permanent, orbiting fuel depots), near-Earth asteroids, the moons of Mars, and eventually Mars itself.

Whle Armstrong and others derided the elimination of Constellation, the planned replacement for the aging space shuttle, Obama will announce plans to salvage a portion of it: the Orion space capsule, which was intended to house astronauts during their travel to the International Space Station and on later missions to the Moon. It also was to be capable of docking at the Space Station for six months and returning crews to Earth.

“We wanted to take the best of what was available from Constellation,” a NASA official told The Associated Press as part of a White House briefing.

Orion will serve temporarily to provide standby emergency escape capabilities for astronauts on the Space Station, addressing fears from some experts that U.S. astronauts on the space station would be held “hostage” to Russian interests.

“The U.S. has surrendered its advantage in space, conceding the high ground to others who are probably our enemies,” Jane Orient, a science policy expert and professor at the University of Arizona, recently told “We are apparently leaving seven astronauts in space as hostages. Their loss would be a tragedy, but only a small part of the total disaster. It would symbolize the lack of respect that America has for its pioneers.”

Obama hopes NASA will be able to launch the Orion vehicle within the next few years, creating an escape capability that will increase the safety of Americans on the Space Station, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign providers and simplify requirements for other commercial crew providers.

Famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin weighed in following the revelations of Obama’s plans, strongly endorsing the president’s new direction for NASA.

“The truth is, that we have already been to the moon — some 40 years ago. A near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies to take us further, faster, is just what our nation needs to maintain its position as the leader in space exploration for the rest of this century,” Aldrin said.

To address Armstrong’s other major fear, that replacement for the Ares heavy lift vehicle is “likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope,” administration officials said NASA will speed up development of a larger “heavy-lift” rocket that would take cargo and crew away from Earth orbit to the moon, asteroids and other places.

The president on Thursday will announce his commitment to choosing a single heavy-lift rocket design by 2015 and then starting its construction, officials said. This shift means NASA would launch a heavy rocket years before it was supposed to under the old Constellation plan, the NASA official said.

But the new rocket will be different from the Apollo-like Ares V rocket that the Constellation plan would have used. Instead, it will incorporate newer concepts, such as refueling in orbit or using inflatable habitats, officials said.

Overall, the Obama program will mean 2,500 more Florida jobs than the old Bush program, a senior White House official said. In addition, the commercial space industry on Tuesday released a study that said the president’s plan for private ships to fly astronauts to and from the space station would result in 11,800 jobs.


April 12, 2010

Secret Space Plane Nears Maiden Voyage

The U.S. Air Force is on the verge of showcasing the new X-37B space plane — in a space mission that’s cloaked in secrecy.

Secret Space Plane X-37B

Secret Space Plane X-37B

This undated image released by the U.S. Air Force shows the X-37B spacecraft. Now ready for a boost into orbit from Florida on April 20, the reusable robotic X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is a small space shuttle-like craft. The craft will wing its way into Earth orbit, remain aloft for an unspecified time, then high-tail its way back down to terra-firma – auto-piloting down to a landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

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