Tag: X-37B

Space Force Doesn’t Want to Send a Human to Do a Robot’s Job

Article by Nathan Strout                                 September 29, 2020                                 (c4isrnet.com)

• While Space Force officials have tried to keep the focus on what their personnel will do on the ground to support the nation’s space assets, this hasn’t dampened public speculation as to when Space Force will they send humans into orbit. A recent recruiting ad seemingly implied its members would literally be going to space.

• But for anyone joining the Space Force to be an astronaut, Maj. Gen. John Shaw has some bad news. “I think it will happen,” Shaw said on September 29th, “But I think it’s a long way off.” Shaw serves as both commander of Space Force’s Space Operations Command and for the U.S. Space Command’s Combined Force Space Component Command. Shaw sees two big reasons why it’s not likely to happen soon: “First, space isn’t really all that habitable for humans.” “And the second is, we’re getting darned good at this robotics thing in space.”

• “You know, the best robots that humans have ever created are probably satellites — either ones that explore other planets or operated within our own Earth/moon system,” said Shaw. “GPS satellites might be among those …and we’re only getting better with machine learning and artificial intelligence. We’re going to have an awful lot of automated and autonomous systems operating in Earth and lunar orbit and solar orbit in the days and years to come doing national security space activity.”

• The Space Force and the US Air Force are investing in robotic capabilities that preclude the need for humans in space. Most notable is the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Spacecraft (RSGS) program being run by DARPA (illustrated above). With RSGS, DARPA wants to develop a robotic arm that can be placed on a free flying spacecraft which can navigate up to satellites to conduct repairs, orbital adjustments, or even install new payloads. DARPA hopes to launch a robotically enhanced vehicle into orbit in late 2022, where SpaceLogistics will provide the spacecraft and DARPA will provide the robotic arm.

• The Air Force Research Laboratory is building ROBOpilot, a robot that can fly planes, completely replacing the need for human pilots. It can press pedals to activate brakes, pull on the yoke to steer, adjust the throttle, and even read the dashboard instruments to see where it is and where it’s going.

• The secretive X-37b space plane is an unmanned vehicle is currently able to take off, carry host experiments into orbit, deploy satellites, and return to earth without humans on board.

• But Shaw believes that it’s inevitable. “At some point, yes, we will be putting humans into space,” said Shaw. “They may be operating command centers somewhere in the lunar environment or someplace else that are continuing to operate an architecture that is largely perhaps autonomous.”

• In July, the Sierra Nevada Corporation announced it had received a study contract for such autonomous orbital outposts in low Earth orbit. Missions will include hosting payloads, supporting space assembly and manufacturing, microgravity experimentation, logistics, training, testing and evaluations. SpaceNews confirmed that two other companies – Nanoracks and Arkisys – have also received study contracts.

• While these orbital outposts will be unmanned for now, a Defense Innovation Unit spokesperson said that it would be interested in securing a “human rating” for future outposts. So even if humans on orbit are not part of the military’s immediate plans, it remains a tantalizing possibility. “At some point that will happen. I just don’t know when,” said Shaw. “And it’s anybody’s guess to pick the year when that happens.”

 

                  Maj. Gen. John Shaw

Since it was established in Dec. 2019 — and probably even before that — one question has plagued the U.S. Space Force: when will they send humans into orbit?

While Space Force officials have tried to keep the focus on what their personnel will do on the ground to support the nation’s space assets, they’ve done little to dampen speculation. The Space Force probably didn’t help itself when it released a recruiting ad earlier this year that seemingly implied its members would literally be going to space.

But for anyone joining the Space Force to be an astronaut, Maj. Gen. John Shaw has some potentially bad news.

“I think it will happen,” said Shaw during the AFWERX Engage Space event Sept. 29. “But I think it’s a long way off.”

Shaw would know. He’s been a key member of the lean staff standing up both the Space Force and U.S. Space Command, serving simultaneously as commander of the former’s Space Operations Command and the latter’s Combined Force Space Component Command. While Shaw sees humans in orbit as part of the military’s plans somewhere down the line, there are two big reasons why it’s not likely to happen soon:
“First, space isn’t really all that habitable for humans. We’ve learned that since our early space days,” he explained. “And the second is, we’re getting darned good at this robotics thing in space.”

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China Quietly Launches ‘Reusable Experimental Spacecraft’

Article by Eric Mack                                   September 4, 2020                                    (cnet.com)

• On September 4th, with little fanfare China’s state-run Xinhua media outlet announced the launch of a “reusable experimental spacecraft” from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. Space industry watchers believe it to be some sort of unmanned space plane similar to the X-37B operated by the US Air Force and Space Force, that the Chinese have been developing since 2017.

• The statement reads: “After a period of in-orbit operation, the spacecraft will return to the scheduled landing site in China. It will test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space.”

• The mission was conducted under a veil of secrecy with no official launch photos, and not even the time of launch made public. Jonathan McDowell with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics speculated that China’s secrecy “leads one to think this is not only a space plane, it’s a military space plane”.

[Editor’s Note]   While the Chinese test flight lasted two days, the Americans have kept its umnanned X-37B aloft in space for more than two years. (see previous ExoArticle on the X-37B craft)

To be fair, the Air Force is just as secretive about its X-37B craft. But the unmanned Chinese craft, called ‘Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi’ (translation: ‘Repeat Use Test Space Craft’) returned safely two days after the September 4th launch. Interestingly, it appears that the Chinese craft released an object into space before returning back to the Earth. (see follow-up article “China’s reusable experimental spacecraft returns to Earth after two-day mystery mission”)

 

China says it has successfully launched a “reusable experimental spacecraft” under increased levels of secrecy. Space industry watchers believe it to be some sort of unmanned space plane similar to the X-37B operated by the US Air Force and Space Force in recent years.

              US Air Forces’ X-37B

A short statement from China’s state-run Xinhua media outlet announced the launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on Friday.

“After a period of in-orbit operation, the spacecraft will return to the scheduled landing site in China. It will test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space,” the statement reads.

The mission was conducted under a veil of extra secrecy, with no official launch photos or even the time of launch made public.

“That leads one to think this is not only a space plane, it’s a military space plane,” said Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell on a European Space Agency sponsored Zoom conference Friday.

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Astrophysicist on Top Secret US Air Force Craft Used for ‘Testing Hardware’ in Space

 

Article by Douglas Charles                               March 23, 2020                                  (brobible.com)

• In a YouTube video (see below), astrophysicist Scott Manley discusses the US Air Force’s use of a secret craft known as the X-37B. The USAF has deployed the small, reusable robotic space plane over the past ten years in classified payload missions in low Earth orbit.

• Manley, who holds a Masters in computation physics, recounted the X-37B’s history as a NASA project that saw its first flight in 2005. A ‘White Knight’ carrier aircraft would carry the X-37B to its launch altitude and release it. After several tests, it made a successful drop and flight in 2006 where “the thing flew beautifully”. Under autonomous control, the craft landed perfectly in the center of the runway, but ran off the end sustaining minor damage. But NASA repaired it and conducted further flawless test flights.

• It was then that the US Air Force took notice and built an X-37B of it own under a classified DoD project. Being an autonomous craft, “There is no cockpit, or windows, or anything like that for people inside, but there is a payload bay door that is a couple of meters long,” says Manley.

• Manley says that “there have been five flights with this vehicle” so far. There are actually two separate X-37B vehicles having “subtle differences in their hardware.” The X-37B has a large engine in the rear with control thrusters at the front and rear, neatly integrated onto the surface of the craft. The original NASA design called for a pair of engines using hydrogen peroxide and a kerosene-based jet propellant. The Air Force version uses more volatile propellants.

• Manley believes that the US Air Force “…is testing hardware for future satellites.” “They can test the electronics, sensors, propulsion, thermal control systems…[to] assess how it performs in space and how it [degrades] over time.” Manley says that while NASA uses its X-37B with the International Space Station, the Air Force would prefer to keep its upgraded classified version away from prying eyes.

 

                          Scott Manley

According to details recently reported by the Daily Express, “The U.S. Air Force has a top-secret mission in

space that uses an old NASA project to ‘test hardware’ in the cosmos before officially launching it.”

That information was shared by astrophysicist Scott Manley with his 1.03 million subscribers on his popular YouTube channel. (Manley notes in his bio that he is not a professional YouTuber, he has a day job, and doesn’t take sponsored content for his videos.)

In his video titled “Everything We Know About The U.S. Air Force’s Secret Space Plane – The X-37B,” Manley discusses the classified missions that the Air Force has been carrying out for the past 10 years in low Earth orbit using a small reusable robotic space plane designated X-37B.

Manley, who holds a Masters in computation physics, states in the video while discussing the history of the plane, “NASA’s X-37 would see its first flight in 2005, carried under the White Knight, the carrier aircraft that would take the spaceship one vehicle to its launch altitude, where it would perform its prize-winning flights.

“So it did several captive carry tests and in 2006 they finally got to drop it and test it and the thing flew beautifully under a fully autonomous control, it aimed for the runway, it put itself down gently in the center of the runway and ran off the end where it sustained some minor damage.

12:37 minutes – Scott Manley describing the NASA/USAF X-37B (‘Scott Manley’ YouTube)

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