24 April 2010
US spacecraft sparks arms race concerns
By Xin Dingding
China Daily
http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2010-04/24/content_9769702.htm
Space plane can 'help launch space weapons, be used for anti-satellite purposes'

BEIJING - The latest spacecraft launched by the United States has triggered concerns over a new arms race in space that could jeopardize world peace, Chinese military researchers said on Friday.

The US Air Force launched unmanned spacecraft X-37B with a rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday evening local time, media reported. The spacecraft is designed to fly in low orbit for as long as nine months.

The X-37B looks like a space shuttle orbiter, with a similar shape and payload bay for cargo and experiments. But unlike US space shuttles that can stay in orbit for only about two weeks and are costly to maintain, X-37B can reportedly be used repeatedly with less costs.

The space plane is meant to serve as a test platform for unspecified experiments before gliding to an autonomous runway landing, the US Air Force said.

The US military has only made the general description of the mission objectives of its latest space launch public - to test of guidance, navigation, control, thermal protection and autonomous operations in orbit, re-entry and landing, media reported.

"This launch helps ensure that our warfighters will be provided the capabilities they need in the future," said Colonel Andre Lovett, a launch official and vice-commander of the Air Force's 45th Space Wing, in a statement on Thursday.

However, the ultimate purpose of the X-37B and details about it remain a mystery.

Experts said the spacecraft is also intended to speed up the development of combat-support and weapons systems.

The spacecraft is the world's only reusable operational spaceship and "an important breakthrough of space technologies", said Zhao Xiaozhuo, a research fellow of military studies under China's Academy of Military Science of the People's Liberation Army.

The space plane is considered to hold potential military value as it can serve combat-support systems and become a platform for launching space weapons, Zhao said.

It can also be easily used for anti-satellite purposes, he said.

"As a superpower, the US has been calling for nuclear disarmament all these years and urged other countries to be more responsible for world peace and safety," Zhao said.

"But in the meantime, its development of the space plane may lead to an arms race in space."

Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said the impact of the space plane "may not be serious enough to trigger an arms race in space", but it has demonstrated US resolve to take a leading position in it.

"The US has previously said that it would slow down the pace of developing the space plane project. But now with the launch, it shows the US has never really slowed down," Zhai said.

The space plane has the potential to destroy other nations' satellites, which will help the US take the lead in space, he said.

"China has always insisted on the peaceful exploration of outer space," Zhai said.

"It is urgent for all countries to reach an agreement to avoid weaponizing outer space."

AP contributed to the story.


23 April 2010
Unmanned military space planes usher in new weaponry era
Shaun Waterman
Washington Times

http://m.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/apr/23/unmanned-space-planes-to-usher-in-new-weaponry-era/


The Pentagon's test launch of two unmanned space vehicles Thursday highlights efforts to develop a generation of high-altitude, high-speed weapons systems that could make the heavens a new battleground.

At Cape Canaveral, Fla., the Air Force went ahead with the long-anticipated maiden flight of the troubled X-37B space plane, which launches vertically into orbit on the back of an Atlas rocket but descends into the atmosphere and lands itself, as the space shuttle does.

The X-37B has been in development for more than 10 years and had "a tumultuous history," said Gary Payton, the Air Force's deputy undersecretary for space programs. "So ... it's great to see the X37 finally get to the launchpad and get into space."

The launch took place just before 8 p.m. EDT, and Mr. Payton said it had not been decided when to bring the vehicle - which can spend up to nine months in orbit - back to Earth.

"We don't know when it's coming back for sure. It depends on the progress that we make with the on-orbit experiments," he said.

Meanwhile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) test launched another space plane - the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), known as the Falcon.

The Falcon is a suborbital vehicle launched on a solid-fuel rocket booster made from a decommissioned ballistic missile. Just outside the atmosphere, the plane separates from the rocket and glides back to Earth at more than 13,000 mph - more than 20 times the speed of sound.

Thursday's 30-minute, 4,100-nautical-mile test flight - which had been scrubbed twice this week because of bad weather - was slated to end with the Falcon crashing into the ocean just north of a U.S. military test site at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.

DARPA's $308 million research program is building two Falcon vehicles, the second of which is scheduled for launch early next year.

Defense analysts say the Falcon is part of the Pentagon's effort to develop the capability to strike anywhere in the world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour - known as Conventional Prompt Global Strike, or CPGS.

CPGS is a new class of weapons that officials hope will address recent threats, such as terrorist nuclear weapons, and help reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons as a strategic option in more conventional conflicts.

DARPA said only that the Falcon program is designed "to create new technological options that enable capabilities that address urgent threats to our national security."

But a statement to The Washington Times from U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of CPGS, said the Falcon will demonstrate key capabilities for the development of this new class of weapons.

Solving the challenges of launching an unmanned vehicle into suborbital space and gliding it down at hypersonic speed to accurately hit a target on Earth "could lead to the deployment of a CPGS capability - an ability to hold emerging threats at risk with a rapid, non-nuclear option," the statement said.

"It is premature to discuss the actual implementation of this capability until the technology has sufficiently matured," the statement concluded.

No one from Strategic Command was available for comment.

The purpose of the X-37B program is less clear, in part because it remains highly classified.

"What does it do? Nobody knows," said John Pike of the Virginia-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

He estimated that the program - the actual expense of which is hidden in the Pentagon's "black," or classified, budget - is likely to cost more than $1 billion. The launch vehicle alone - a two-stage, liquid-propelled Atlas V rocket - costs as much as $200 million, Mr. Pike said. Ten years of development on the plane - as the project was shuffled from NASA to DARPA and finally to its current institutional home in the Air Force - is likely to have cost hundreds of millions of dollars more.

Mr. Pike said the Air Force had been determined "for the last half-century" to get plane-type weapons systems into space, even though it was unclear what their purpose would be. "There is a doctrinal imperative for such a vehicle that transcends any describable mission it might have," he said.

Mr. Payton told reporters that the Air Force has "a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better."


22 April 2010
US military launches top-secret robotic spacecraft

by Staff Writers
Space War

http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_military_launches_top-secret_robotic_spacecraft_999.html


An undated artist's impression of the X-37.


Washington (AFP) - A US Air Force unmanned spacecraft blasted off on Thursday from Florida, amid a veil of secrecy about its military mission.

The robotic space plane, or X-37B, lifted off from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V rocket at 7:52 pm local time (2352 GMT), according video released by the military.

"The launch is a go," Air Force Major Angie Blair told AFP.

Resembling a miniature space shuttle, the plane is 8.9 meters (29 feet) long and has a wing-span of 4.5 meters.

The reusable space vehicle has been years in the making and the military has offered only vague explanations as to its purpose or role in the American military's arsenal.

The vehicle is designed to "provide an 'on-orbit laboratory' test environment to prove new technology and components before those technologies are committed to operational satellite programs," the Air Force said in a recent release.

Officials said the X-37B would eventually return for a landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but did not say how long the inaugural mission would last.

"In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back," Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary for Air Force space programs, told reporters in a conference call this week.

Payton said the plane could stay in space for up to nine months.

Flight controllers plan to monitor the vehicle's guidance, navigation and control systems, but the Air Force has declined to discuss what the plane is carrying in its payload or what experiments are scheduled.

Pentagon officials have sidestepped questions about possible military missions for the spacecraft, as well as the precise budget for its development -- estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.

The results of the test flight will inform "development programs that will provide capabilities for our warfighters in the future," Payton said.

The space plane -- manufactured by Boeing -- began as a project of NASA in 1999, and was eventually handed over to the US Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

The Air Force has plans for a second X-37B, scheduled to launch in 2011.


21 April 2010
X-37B military spaceplane launches from Cape Canaveral
By Paul Rincon
BBC

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8601172.stm


A prototype spaceplane developed for the US military has been launched into orbit from Florida.

The X-37B, which has been likened to a scaled-down space shuttle, blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 1952 EDT (2352 GMT) on Thursday.

The military vehicle is unpiloted and will carry out the first autonomous re-entry and landing in the history of the US space programme.

The spacecraft can return experiments to Earth for inspection and analysis.

At 9m (29ft) long and with a 4.5m (15ft) wingspan, the reusable spaceplane is about one-quarter the size of the shuttle, with a large engine mounted at the rear of the ship for orbit changing.


The project could lead to the military's first operational spaceplane

"It might be at this point in time that [the Air Force is] going to roll the dice and see if something good happens"

Dr Joan Johnson-Freese
US Naval War College

And while the space shuttle uses a fuel-cell power-system, the military vehicle is powered by a solar array and lithium-ion batteries.

The precise objectives and cost of the programme are secret, but the first few flights will allow officials to evaluate the vehicle's performance and ensure components and systems work the way they are supposed to.

"The top priority technology demonstration on this first flight is the vehicle itself," Gary Payton, the US Air Force's deputy under secretary for space programs, told journalists on a teleconference this week.

"Getting it into orbit, getting the payload bay doors open, the solar array deployed, learning about on-orbit attitude control and bringing it all back."

The X-37B was launched vertically atop an Atlas V rocket. The Air Force (USAF) says the vehicle will be used to test advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics and high temperature structures and seals.

The Pentagon has not specified a duration for this mission, but the X-37B is designed to operate on orbit for up to 270 days: "In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back for sure. It depends on the progress that we make with the on-orbit experiments, the on-orbit demonstrations," said Mr Payton.

Once the mission is complete, a command will be sent from the ground prompting the 5,000kg (11,000lb) spaceplane to fire its engine to re-enter the atmosphere.

It will then autonomously navigate its way to the 4.5km (15,000ft) -long primary runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The X-37B started life in 1999 as a US space agency programme, but Nasa handed the project over to the Pentagon in September 2004. As such, the Air Force is in a position to talk openly about the craft's design, but its purpose remains classified.

Dr Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of national security and decision making at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, said the military would be waiting to see if this project yielded new capabilities: "It might be at this point in time that [the US Air Force is] going to roll the dice and see if something good happens.

"If it does, they'll continue with it. Otherwise, this will be another one of those [experimental] projects that goes into a bin somewhere."


The X-37B was launched vertically atop an Atlas V rocket

The USAF has requisitioned a second experimental plane from the prime contractor Boeing; this is being targeted for launch sometime in 2011.

Speculation about the craft's purpose has led to accusations that the project could move us a step closer to the weaponisation of space.

Mr Payton responded: "I don't know how this could be called weaponisation of space. It's just an updated version of the space shuttle type of activities in space. We, the Air Force, have a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better."

Dr Johnson-Freese said that one way in which the spaceplane could potentially be used was as a "manoeuvrable satellite".

She said that conventional satellites were vulnerable to missile systems because they followed predictable paths in orbit and were relatively easy to spot. The X-37B could evade attempts to shoot it down with anti-satellite (A-sat) weapons.

And if enemy forces know when spy satellites are due to fly over their territory, they can limit sensitive activities to times when there are no passes by reconnaissance spacecraft. The X-37B could spring a surprise by virtue of its manoeuvrability.

The programme is now led by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (AFRCO).

Edwards Air Force Base, also in California, has been designated as the vehicle's back-up landing facility. The Soviet Union carried out an autonomous re-entry and landing with its Buran space shuttle in 1988.


21 April 2010
Secrecy surrounding space plane fuels speculation
Reported in The Colorado Springs Gazette
from the Los Angeles Times

http://www.gazette.com/articles/speculation-97522-angeles-surrounding.html

This undated image released by the U.S. Air Force shows the X-37B spacecraft. The Air Force is preparing to launch this robotic spacecraft that resembles a small space shuttle to perform unspecified technology tests in orbit and then autonomously glide on stubby wings to a landing on a California runway. Originally intended to be launched from a space shuttle, the reusable X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle has been a decade in development.


LOS ANGELES - It may seem like a harmless, miniature version of the space shuttle, but some industry analysts are wondering if the secretive robotic spacecraft set to launch Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., has a more sinister side.

�Are we looking at a new space vehicle or an orbital bomber that�s capable of attacking from space?� said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a Web site for military policy research. �At this point, it�s hard to say.�

The U.S. Air Force, which has been developing the X-37 pilotless space plane, isn�t saying much. Even the launch has been kept out of the public eye, and only Pentagon-sanctioned photographers can take pictures of the vehicle.

The program isn�t entirely classified. The Air Force revealed that it�s about 29 feet long, or about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels.

It is the latest version of a spacecraft that initially began more than a decade ago as a NASA program to test new technologies for the space shuttle. When President George W. Bush decided to retire the space shuttle, the Pentagon took over the program and shrouded its development in secrecy.

The Pentagon won�t say how much it has spent on the space plane or what its ultimate purpose may be. It has been equally cryptic about when the spacecraft would return to Earth. The space plane is designed to be launched atop an Atlas V rocket and then land on its own at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
�In all honesty, we don�t know when it�s coming back,� said Gary E. Payton, deputy undersecretary for Air Force space programs, in a conference call this week. He did say that the vehicle can stay in space for up to nine months.

Air Force officials also deflected questions about using the X-37 for military missions, saying that the spacecraft is simply a way to test new technologies, such as satellite sensors and components.
But analysts question whether the Pentagon would be willing to spend possibly hundreds of millions of dollars for an orbiting laboratory at a time when the government is tightening spending.

�It wouldn�t be in the defense budget if it didn�t have defense capabilities,� said Pike of Globalsecurity.com. �The idea of a small-winged vehicle that can go into orbit and perform military missions has been around for half a century.�

Analysts said the program seems similar to the 1960s effort by the Air Force to develop the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a reusable space plane that could be used to knock out foreign satellites as well as conduct reconnaissance and bombing missions. After numerous problems, it was canceled in 1963.
The X-37 could be a descendant of the Dyna-Soar program, said Paul H. Nisbet, an aerospace analyst with JSA Research Inc. in Sarasota, Fla. �But it looks like the program is purely experimental right now,� he said.

Air Force Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37 systems program director, said the space plane has no offensive capabilities and he did not want to speculate about its future capabilities. For now he just wants to see it fly.
�Much like testing a new aircraft, it�s a check flight to prove everything works properly,� he said.

One thing is certain. Built by Boeing Co.�s advanced research lab, Phantom Works, in Huntington Beach, Calif., the X-37 would be the first U.S. unmanned spacecraft to be launched into space and land on its own.

If the X-37 does make a successful reentry and touch down, it will mark another first. The 15,000-foot landing strip at Vandenberg was built to accommodate the space shuttle but was never used for it.

The Air Force already has an order for another X-37 from Boeing, Giese said. The second flight could take place in 2011, but he said �much of that depends on the initial test program.�


21 April 2010
Small unmanned spacecraft is set for launch

The Air Force hasn�t revealed much about its X-37 pilotless space plane, fueling speculation that it�s being developed for military purposes
By William Hennigan
Los Angeles Times

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-0422-space-plane-20100421,0,4639114.story



The launch of the X-37 pilotless space plane Thursday will be closed to the public, with only Pentagon-sanctioned photographers allowed. (U.S. Air Force / April 12, 2010)

It may seem like a harmless, miniature version of the space shuttle, but some industry analysts are wondering if the secretive robotic spacecraft set to launch Thursday from Cape Canaveral has a more sinister side.

"Are we looking at a new space vehicle or an orbital bomber that's capable of attacking from space?" said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a website for military policy research. "At this point, it's hard to say."

The U.S. Air Force, which has been developing the X-37 pilotless space plane, isn't saying much. Even the launch has been kept out of the public eye, and only Pentagon-sanctioned photographers can take pictures of the vehicle.

The program isn't entirely classified. The Air Force revealed that it's about 29 feet long, or about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels.

It is the latest version of a spacecraft that initially began more than a decade ago as a NASA program to test new technologies for the space shuttle. When President George W. Bush decided to retire the space shuttle, the Pentagon took over the program and shrouded its development in secrecy.

The Pentagon won't say how much it has spent on the space plane or what its ultimate purpose may be. It has been equally cryptic about when the spacecraft would return to Earth. The space plane is designed to be launched atop an Atlas V rocket and then land on its own at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

"In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back," said Gary E. Payton, deputy undersecretary for Air Force space programs, in a conference call this week. He did say that the vehicle can stay in space for up to nine months.

Air Force officials also deflected questions about using the X-37 for military missions, saying that the spacecraft is simply a way to test new technologies, such as satellite sensors and components.

But analysts question whether the Pentagon would be willing to spend possibly hundreds of millions of dollars for an orbiting laboratory at a time when the government is tightening spending.

"It wouldn't be in the defense budget if it didn't have defense capabilities," said Pike of Globalsecurity.com. "The idea of a small-winged vehicle that can go into orbit and perform military missions has been around for half a century."

Analysts said the program seems similar to the 1960s effort by the Air Force to develop the X-20 Dyna-Soar, a reusable space plane that could be used to knock out foreign satellites as well as conduct reconnaissance and bombing missions. After numerous problems, it was canceled in 1963.

The X-37 could be a descendant of the Dyna-Soar program, said Paul H. Nisbet, an aerospace analyst with JSA Research Inc. in Sarasota, Fla. "But it looks like the program is purely experimental right now," he said.

Air Force Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37 systems program director, said the space plane has no offensive capabilities and he did not want to speculate about its future capabilities. For now he just wants to see it fly.

"Much like testing a new aircraft, it's a check flight to prove everything works properly," he said.

One thing is certain. Built by Boeing Co.'s advanced research lab, Phantom Works, in Huntington Beach, the X-37 would be the first U.S. unmanned spacecraft to be launched into space and land on its own.

If the X-37 does make a successful reentry and touch down, it will mark another first. The 15,000-foot landing strip at Vandenberg was built to accommodate the space shuttle but was never used for it.

The Air Force already has an order for another X-37 from Boeing, Giese said. The second flight could take place in 2011, but he said "much of that depends on the initial test program."


19 April 2010
US to launch secret 'space warplane'
PressTV

http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=123813&sectionid=3510203

An artist's conception of the X-37B


The United States Air Force has announced that it will launch a secret space plane that has sparked speculation about the militarization of space.

The Pentagon has set April 21 as the date for the launch of the robotic space plane known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which is a reusable unmanned plane capable of long outer space missions at low orbits.

Since the nature of the project is shrouded in mystery, defense analysts allege that the US military is building the first generation of US 'space Predator drones' that will build up the United States' space armada, the Christian Science Monitor wrote in a recent article.

Military experts argue that the US Department of Defense would not have saved NASA's costly X-37B project, which had been scrapped, if it did not have a military application.

They say the US wants to maintain a leading role in space via the development of the new 'space weapon' at a time when other countries like China are expanding their space programs.

However, US military officials maintain that the X-37B will only be used for transporting payloads and facilitating space experiments.

The OTV is capable of supporting a range of tests, the Air Force spokesperson for the project said earlier at the 26th National Space Symposium.

"The first mission will emphasize proving technologies necessary for long duration reusable space vehicles with autonomous reentry and landing capabilities," Angie Blair added.

She went on to say that the "specific details of the OTV capabilities, limitations and vulnerabilities" remain classified.

The X-37B can stay at an orbit between 200 and 800 kilometers for around 270 days before landing automatically at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, reports say.

The location of the mission control center for the Boeing-made space vehicle is also a classified secret, but Blair says that Air Force Space Command's 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron (AFSPC) will run the operation.

Military space specialist Professor Roger Handberg, who is the chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, told Space.com that the X-37B project may signify continued U.S. Air Force interest in a rapid response vehicle along the lines of the long-proposed space maneuver vehicle.

He added that the project could be viewed "as the logical extension of the push into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) where vehicles used for observation have moved into weapon carriers and various other missions, many classified."

"From the perspective of international observers, especially in space-aspiring states such as China, the X-37B program just reinforces their view that the U.S. is pushing to gain first mover advantage in rapid response, including possible weaponization of space using this vehicle or a derivative," Handberg noted.

Political analysts say that the X-37B project could be interpreted as a violation of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 if the space plane is used for military purposes.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, officially known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, states that the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind; states shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner; the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes; astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind; states shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and states shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty states: "A State Party to the Treaty which has reason to believe that an activity or experiment planned by another State Party in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, would cause potentially harmful interference with activities in the peaceful exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, may request consultation concerning the activity or experiment."

In addition, a proposal has been put forward for a Space Preservation Treaty that would ban all space weapons, but no country has signed the treaty so far.
 


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