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space planes infographic
And now China appears to be developing its own space plane, which is a miniature version of the USAF X37B, which is itself a miniature version of the retired US Space Shuttle.

Shenlong is China’s effort to develop a re-entering aerodynamic spacecraft, similar to the space shuttle or the X-37B but much smaller than either,” said Mark Gubrud of Princeton University. “However, the economic rationale for the shuttle was never realized, and it is not clear what advantages the X-37B offers the U.S. military over conventional upper stages, satellite buses and re-entry capsules.” _China Mystery Space Plane

In China, everything has a secondary military purpose, even the putative “civil” space program. But the mini-spaceplane is likely to be a pure military program. At this point it is certain to be in full catch-up mode, in an attempt not to let western space efforts get too far out in front.

Cheng said numerous scientific conferences held in China during 1988-92 saw debate about what the manned space program vehicle should look like.”Given regular People’s Liberation Army writings about the importance of space-to-ground military operations in the future, something like an X-43 [an unmanned experimental hypersonic aircraft] or X-37B would also have appeal, as a likely pathway for military purposes,” Cheng said. _Space Plane China Military

Space is the military high ground, from which rocks can be thrown down the gravity well at anyone and anything. It is not surprising that China would see a military benefit in designing a VTHL spacecraft for its own strategic military reasons.

US Air Force’s Mysterious X-37B Space Plane Passes 1 Year in Orbit

orbitThe U.S. Air Force‘s secretive X-37B space plane program has passed another milestone: Its latest mission marked one year in orbit this week.

The reusable unmanned X-37B space plane, flying what the U.S. military calls the Orbital Test vehicles (OTV-3) mission, began its second flight on Dec. 11, 2012, launching atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

But what it’s been doing for the last 12 months remains a mystery. The details of the mission, including its payloads and objectives, have been kept classified. [See photos from the X-37B space plane’s OTV-3 mission]

Secretive US Space Plane Spotted Over Ontario (Twice) | Video

The winged X-37B spacecraft in some ways looks like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttle and measures 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide. It has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck.

The X-37B in orbit today is one of two versions of the vehicles to fly so far. It was built by Boeing’s Phantom Works Division in Seal Beach, Calif., and can fly long space missions thanks to its solar array power system.

The X-37B was originally intended for space missions lasting up to 270 days, but the OTV-3 mission has been in space for 367 days and counting — the latest demonstration that X-37B can stay space for much longer than its design lifetime. This same X-37B spent 225 days in space during its inaugural mission, which launched from Florida on April 22, 2010 and landed at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The x-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is an unmanned space test vehicle for the USAF.
This SPACE.com infographic depicts the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is an unmanned space test vehicle for the USAF. See how the unmanned space drone works here.
Credit: Karl Tate, SPACE.com

As of Friday (Dec. 13), the spacecraft has logged a total of 592 days in space during two missions. A different X-37B craft spent 469 days circling Earth during the OTV-2 mission, also landing Vandenberg in June 2012.

Military officials have not disclosed if and when the OTV3 Mission might end. They have, however, hinted that the X-37B may not land in California. Instead, it might touch down on the space shuttle landing strip at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., near the place where it left Earth.

Though it is currently performing secret experiments for the military, Boeing officials have said the vehicle could potentially fly cargo missions to the International Space Station. The aerospace company has also indicated that X-37B could evolve into larger spacecraft, a version called X37C, which could ferry astronauts to the orbiting outpost.

stratolaunch-systems-planeX37B wasn’t always in the hands of the military. NASA originally used the plane as an experimental test bed, but when funding for the project ran out in 2004, the vehicle was turned over to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Then in 2006, it was passed to the Air Force.


Satellite Trackers spot the X-37B (OTV-3) in its classified Orbit

December 12, 2012

After Tuesday’s successful launch of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 3 atop an Atlas V 501 Rocket blasting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Satellite Trackers have successfully observed the vehicle for the first time.Tuesday’s successful launch began the third mission of the X-37B, the second flight of this particular vehicle that also flew the OTV-1 mission in 2010. It also marked the first time a re-usable space vehicle was launched atop an Expendable Launch Vehicle to make its second trip to space.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with the strides we’ve made in this program and the success of the X-37B vehicle on the first two flights,” said Mr. Richard McKinney, Deputy Under Secretary of the US Air Force for Space. “However, it is important to keep in mind that this is an experimental vehicle and a third mission is still relatively young for a test program. This is the first re-flight of a vehicle so that is certainly a key objective for us. We have only just begun what is a very systematic checkout of the system.”

After making its successful launch and orbital insertion, OTV-3 received its military designation: USA-240. The OTV-3 mission is a classified flight, as were the previous two flights of the X-37B. No details about the vehicle’s payloads, orbit and mission duration were disclosed to the public.Following Tuesday’s Atlas V launch, Satellite Trackers around the world started watching the sky to look for OTV-3. The first reported observation came from Greg Roberts, as reported on the SeeSat-L mailing list. Roberts observed the Centaur Upper Stage and OTV-3 just 19 minutes after Main Engine Cutoff 1 on the Centaur at T+17:34. Well known Satellite Tracker Ted Molczan used data acquired during this first observation of OTV-3 to compute its orbit. According to Molczan, OTV-3’s initial orbit is 345 by 363 Kilometers with an inclination of 43.497 degrees. Refer to Molczan’s Update at SeeSat for OTV search elements.

This orbit is slightly higher than the initial orbit of OTV-2 (317 x 319km at 40 deg) and lower than that of OTV-1 (403 x 420km at 42.9 deg). Why there was a Dogleg maneuver built into the OTV-3 launch sequence remains unknown as an orbital inclination of 43.5 degrees can be reached by launches from Florida’s space coast.

What lies ahead for OTV-3 is classified. It is expected that the vehicle will stay in space for several months performing a number of orbit adjustment maneuvers, but with its initial orbit and final inclination known, Satellite Trackers will not have much trouble keeping track of OTV-3 throughout its mission that is planned to build on the success of the first two OTV flights.

“This mission will incorporate the lessons learned during the refurbishment process on OTV-1,” said Lieutenant Colonel McIntyre, X-37B program manager. “As the X-37B program is examining the affordability and reusability of space vehicles, validation through testing is vital to the process. We are excited to see how this vehicle performs on a second flight. As with previous missions, actual duration will depend on the execution of test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance, and conditions at the landing site.”