Tag Archives: x-37b

The Wild West of Fear: how states scare each other in space

image from NASA

It was May 2014 when a small team of American airmen monitoring a Russian satellite launch saw something they had never seen before. An object the team thought was a piece of debris from the launch suddenly came to life.  “The one object that we assumed was a piece of debris started to maneuver in close proximity to the (rocket) booster,” recalled Lt. Gen. David Buck …at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Buck… said the deliberate maneuvers the mystery object made close to the rocket’s booster were a red flag. Getting that close to another object in space is a complex feat, as objects can move as fast as 17,500 miles per hour….[W]hat the US military was witnessing was not debris at all, but instead a satellite with a dangerous capability, one that could allow it to cozy up next to another satellite and potentially destroy it….

The Russian satellite is officially known as Kosmos 2499 but it has been given a more daunting nickname: “kamikaze,” a spacecraft expressly designed to maneuver up close to another satellite to disable or destroy it. In other words, it’s a satellite that could go on the attack.Retired Gen. William Shelton, the former commander of Air Force space command, likened the satellite to a space Trojan horse. “You could have something on orbit that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a communications satellite, when in actuality, it is also a weapon,” said Shelton.

Kosmos 2499 is far from the only threat. In September 2014, just a few months after Kosmos was placed in orbit, Russia launched an additional satellite named Luch with both maneuvering and spying capabilities.  “This satellite has been maneuvering through geosynchronous space … cozying up close to various communications satellites, listening to what traffic is flowing over those,” said Paul Graziani, CEO of civilian satellite tracker Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI).
Over the course of a year, Graziani’s team has watched as Luch parked itself next to three US commercial satellites and one European satellite. The Russians flew the satellite close enough to collect both civilian and, possibly, sensitive military information.  Graziani was charged with delivering the bad news to US-owned commercial satellite company Intelsat…

“If the operators of this spacecraft so chose, they could direct it to actually hit another spacecraft,” said Graziani.  Like Kosmos, Luch’s ability to maneuver has the potential to make it into a satellite killer.

 Launched in 2013, the Shiyan, meaning “experiment” in Chinese, was “experimenting” shadowing the smaller satellite, according to AGI. But then something unexpected happened: The smaller satellite repeatedly disappeared and then reappeared on their screens.“We saw the approach, we saw the larger spacecraft come close to the smaller spacecraft, and then we no longer saw the smaller spacecraft,” said Graziani.
The only reasonable explanation, experts say, is that the Shiyan has a robotic arm that was repeatedly grabbing and then releasing its smaller partner.  The Chinese government acknowledged the satellite’s robotic arm, saying the satellite is “mainly used in space debris observation,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

But space watchers like Graziani see a more sinister application.  “You could grab and hold of a satellite and maneuver it out of its mission,” said Graziani  If true, it would be a new threatening capability, allowing the Shiyan to essentially kidnap another satellite….

Lasers:  “You can aim a laser at a satellite’s sensor and try to make it hard to see,” said Laura Grego, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Like someone shining a flashlight in your eyes.”With power dialed up high that same laser could permanently fry the satellite’s sensor. But “very expensive and important satellites should have shutters” to block this kind of threat, said Grego, who considers these types of activities more of a nuisance than a space attack.

Space drone: Moving further into the realm of science fiction, the US military has developed the first space drone, the X-37BBearing a striking resemblance to the space shuttle, the drone is officially a reusable spacecraft for carrying payloads into space…Its other missions are classified, but the drone’s maneuverability, payload space and ability to stay in orbit for hundreds of days have space watchers and countries like Russia and China wondering whether the X-37B would one day be used as a space fighter jet,

Excerpts from Jim Sciutto and Jennifer Rizzo War in space: Kamikazes, kidnapper satellites and lasers, CNN, Nov. 29, 2016

The Third X-37B Space Drone

An experimental robotic space plane developed for the Air Force is slated to be launched Tuesday (Dec. 11, 2012) from Cape Canaveral, Fla., fueling an ongoing mystery about its hush-hush payload and overall mission.  Air Force officials offered few details about the mission. They said the unmanned space plane, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, simply provides a way to test technologies in space, such as satellite sensors and other components.

See also “Mystery” of X-37B

This is the third time that the Air Force will send an X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle into orbit.   The first X-37B was launched in April 2010 and landed 224 days later on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara. The second X-37B spent 469 days in space.  The only information the government released was when the space plane was launched and when it returned.

Because of its clandestine nature, some industry analysts say it could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling foreign satellites as it circles the globe.  But the Pentagon has repeatedly said the X-37B is simply a “test bed” for other technologies.

The X-37B is about 29 feet long, about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that are about 15 feet from tip to tip. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and is powered by unfolding solar panels. It is designed to stay in orbit for 270 days.  The spacecraft was built in tight secrecy by Boeing Co.’s Space and Intelligence Systems unit in Huntington Beach. Engineering work was done at the company’s facilities in Huntington Beach and Seal Beach. Other components were supplied by its satellite-making plant in El Segundo.

Weather permitting, the plane is set to be launched Tuesday atop a 19-story Atlas V rocket, which will lift the spacecraft into orbit inside the nosecone. Once in orbit, the X-37B will emerge for its estimated nine-month journey.

By W.J. Hennigan, Another secretive space drone is set for launch, LA Times, Dec. 11, 2012

The “Mystery” of X-37B

Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab.The military’s mysterious, experimental unmanned space plane is doing such a good job that its mission has been extended indefinitely–if only anyone knew what its mission was.  Details on the mission involving the X-37B are virtually nonexistent. The official U.S. Air Force fact sheet says the vehicle is being used as an “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.”

In November, the Air Force announced that the X-37B’s mission was being extended beyond its planned 270 days. At a breakfast with reporters Thursday, General William Shelton, head of the Air Force Space Command, said the mission, whatever it is, has been extended indefinitely.”We don’t have an exact re-entry date for it, but we’ve had a successful mission and we’re very happy with its performance,” he said. “That vehicle is performing a great service.”

Asked to give adjectives for the X-37B, he offered up “spectacular,” and “game-changing.”  In January, Spaceflight magazine reported that the vehicle is closely following the orbit of China’s spacelab, Tiangong-1, leading the magazine to suspect that the X-37B is spying on that satellite.  “Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China’s nascent space station,” Spaceflight editor David Baker told the BBC in January. China is expected to send manned missions to Tiangong-1 later this year.Other experts have refuted Baker’s claims, speculating that the X-37B could be used to covertly deploy smaller satellites, while conspiracy theorists have wondered if the X-37B could deliver weapons from space.

Here’s what is known about the X-37B: The 29-foot ship was built in a Huntington Beach, Calif., lab by Boeing. It looks like a miniature, solar-powered version of a space shuttle, and it’s the second “orbital test vehicle” the military has launched into space–the first was launched in 2010. The Air Force calls it the “newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” and it has the ability to land autonomously. Technologies being tested “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.”

Beyond that, the X-37B has been shrouded in secrecy–from its mission to its budget. Thursday, Shelton repeatedly dodged questions about what the military is up to with the ship.”I think there’s a good reason to keep [the budget of the X-37B] as quiet as we possibly can,” he said. “If you reveal budgets, you sometimes reveal the capabilities, the amount of technology inserted into a program. It’s a good, strategic national security decision

Jason Koebler, Military’s Secret ‘Space Plane’ Mission Extended Indefinitely: Very few people know the purpose behind the Air Force’s X-37B, even while it continues to orbit close to a Chinese space lab,chicagotribune.com, May 26, 2012

The Black Budget and its Weapons

The spaceship, X-37B, dubbed a ‘secret space warplane’ by the Iranians, has been in orbit since March 5, although the mission and its cargo are on a need-to-know basis. “On-orbit experimentation is continuing,” Air Force Major Tracy Bunko, a spokesperson for the secretary of the Air Force, told Spaceflight Now. “Though we cannot predict when that will be complete, we are learning new things about the vehicle every day, which makes the mission a very dynamic process.” The X-37B is a black-budget-funded, unmanned mini-shuttle whose exact purposes are unknown.  US officials in charge of the winged, reusable craft say its a good way of getting new techs into space quickly because you don’t need to build a satellite to take them. They add that because the planes are reusable, they can test new gadgets and if they don’t work, you’re not writing off a billion- or million-dollar satellite.

Excerpt, Brid-Aine Parnell, Clandestine US ‘space warplane’ extends orbital mission, The Register, Dec. 1, 2011