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Experimental USAF space plane breaks record for orbital spaceflight (techcrunch.com)
212 points by lil-scamp 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 108 comments



https://spaceweathergallery.com/indiv_upload.php?upload_id=1...

Here is an impressive photograph that an amateur astronomer took in June/July of this year.


Too late to edit my comment but amateur astronomer was a poor label for the guy who took the picture. He is the best astrophotographer for satellites that I've seen. Here is his personal website where he has his collection:

http://www.ralfvandebergh-astrophotography.simpsite.nl/home


There are two groups of people who take pictures of satellites:

1. Amateur astronomers like this guy.

2. Nation states who take clandestine photos of other nation's spy satellites. These pictures are better, but you haven't seen them.

For everything else, there's some guy working in the lab who's like, "oh, you want a picture of our satellite? Of course, there's like 40 of them on our press site. Do you need more? I can ask around and see if anyone's taken selfies from interesting angles." So there's no open institutional force behind it. So the only reasonable outcome of natural market forces is that amateur astronomers create the best pictures of satellites in orbit.

Amateur astronomer isn't a slur either, if that was your point. Take a look at the galleries on cloudnights, a lot of it wouldn't look out of place on NASA/ESA homepages.


(3) Astronomers - usually not on purpose


Astronomers usually aren't tracking satellites, so if one shows up in an image it's only as a streak. You need to be moving the camera to track the object to get a reasonably clear image (or very short exposure times, which are relatively uncommon in astronomy).


Agree with everything you said. I just meant he has a Wikipedia page where he's listed as an astronomer and professional photographer. I'm not sure where the line is drawn between amateur and professional in his case. I'm not sure if he works professionally as an astronomer as well, although he seems to be more of a space journalist.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralf_Vandebergh


That is really impressive...though I don't quite understand why the illustration looks so different; even though there's likely a lot of bloom in the photo, the parts don't seem to match up with the illustration based on the general brightness values.


The illustration shows the payload bay doors open.

In the photo perhaps they are either closed, or open with something hanging out of the payload bay, or some other configuration, making the brightness the way it is???


The doors are almost certainly open. Just like shuttle, there are no external radiators on this plane. They are relatively delicate structures that wouldn't survive reentry. So they have to be inside the doors somewhere. Shuttle had to open its doors within a fixed time, else abort and return, and keep them open while on orbit. No doubt this spaceplane follows a similar profile.

(Also, solar panels. Shuttle didn't use them but if this thing is spending years in space it is probably using solar panels too. They would be mounted at 90* to the radiators, creating a T-shaped structure with different albedos that should be identifiable in even a blurry picture.)


Ah right, thanks, wasn't aware of that.


> breaks record of orbital spaceflight

It broke it's own record of "time-in-orbit" and as far as spaceflight records go this is one of the least relevant. Once a spacecraft gets to orbit it is very easy to stay there almost indefinitely.

Hell, the ISS breaks the record for "continuous habitation in orbit" every day.


Man, if you wanna get points in Tony Hawk Pro Skater, you gotta land the trick.

Same thing... I don't think the ISS is gonna land that trick, as far as I know... I'd be stoked to find out I'm wrong about that, though.


What?


I believe they're saying that the requirement of landing after staying in space for a long period of time should constitute a new record, and that they would be excited to learn about plans to land the ISS back on Earth in some capacity as this would place the ISS in the running for this record.


While true, and I see your point, it's also worth pointing out: the ISS doesn't need to make any trips back down again.

This is a re-usable spaceship, albeit one humans don't get to ride in.


The ISS problem is arguably harder. It doesn't need to survive reentry but you also can't take the whole thing apart, clean it, and put it back together again in a nice climate-controlled machine shop. You have to do it in cramped zero-gravity and keep most of the systems online while you're doing it.


This one changes orbits. Multiple times per mission.


Almost all spacecraft carry propulsion and can change their orbit. There are even known cases of spysats deliberately shadowing comsats.


Obvious missions for a long-mission mobile shuttle like this include

* intercepting and deorbiting space junk

* fixing friendly or sabotaging unfriendly operational satellites

* future weapons platform for offense or defense (say intercepting ground-launched sat-killing missiles)

* on-demand surveillance (with ordinary spy satellites you have to wait until your orbit is in the right spot, adversaries will know when your satellites are above them and adjust their activities to avoid surveillance)

* more routine human activities in LEO (spacecraft assembly, staging for higher orbits or interplanetary activities, shuttling between stations in LEO)

* Netflix and chill with our alien overlords

* Prep for mining activities further out


Space isn't like a highway where you can move from A to B at minimal expense. Switching orbits, both orbit heights but mainly orbit inclinations, comes at a very high delta-V expense and therefore propellant expense, which this craft simply doesn't have the volume to hold.

This cannot shuttle between LEO stations and switch orbits to imitate multiple observation sats unless those sats and stations are very close in terms of orbits.


The U.S. Air Force's former top civilian, Heather Wilson, said it dips into the atmosphere and uses its aerodynamic surfaces to change its orbit.

Ref: https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/07/23/former-secaf-...


There's no free lunch in orbit. If it dips into the atmosphere enough for control surfaces to bite then it has to boost back up again to avoid orbital decay. Either way it can't possibly carry enough fuel to do much of that.


> it has to boost back up again to avoid orbital decay

It doesn’t have to return to orbit. Switching from an orbital trajectory to a parabolic intercept path would be feasible, and open valuable tactical space.


As long as it can travel back to a US-friendly airfield. Which is probably a large number around the world although few which would support classified vehicles?


It uses an oblong orbit to gain a small window where the next orbit cannot be perfectly predicted by an adversary that can only watch half the sky.

You can't gain delta-v by inducing additional drag on the craft.


If a spacecraft is traveling at 4,000 m/s and it plows headlong into a planet, it has gained 4,000 m/s of delta v.

Delta v a measurement of a vector, not a scalar. The fact that its kinetic energy with respect to Earth is decreasing does not mean it isn't gaining delta v. In addition to the obvious (lowering your apogee) you can also use this delta v to change your inclination. It's not "free" of course- you need to do other engine burns to both put the craft into the atmosphere and then another burn to reestablish orbit once you're out the other side. But it isn't clear to me that this is less efficient than just doing the burns without the atmospheric assists.


> If a spacecraft is traveling at 4,000 m/s and it plows headlong into a planet, it has gained 4,000 m/s of delta v.

Yes and no. You've changed your velocity by 4km/s. You didn't gain usable ∆v, and you've just lost your spacecraft.

∆v means few related things. One, the amount of velocity change your mission plan requires. Second, the velocity change your craft is capable of using its own propulsion. Say you're plotting Mars orbit insertion. It requires (via [0]) 1.5 km/s ∆v. But you're a cheater, and decided to use aerobraking to bleed off (guessing a number) 1km/s of that velocity. This means you can complete this maneuver with a craft that only has 500m/s ∆v at the point of insertion. This does not mean the craft has gained ∆v.

--

[0] - https://www.reddit.com/r/space/comments/29cxi6/i_made_a_delt...


I'm absolutely certain the air force is willing to give up some efficiency to gain some obfuscation.


You can certainly get delta-v with drag. You’ll keep bleeding energy from orbital (kinetic plus potential) to atmospheric heat, but that’s an entirely different thing.


Yes, orbital mechanics are very non-intuitive.

Thinking "you're in space so can go anywhere" makes as much sense as thinking it's easy to go from Canada to the top of the Everest just because they're both on land.


Definitely, and in fact that's probably the first epiphany one reaches when one starts playing KSP.


Yup. You learn that you can easily go anywhere you want on a curved line, as long as you're willing to wait long enough. But making that line point towards where you want to go is a stupidly fuel-expensive process.


people who haven't played kerbal space program (with mechjeb for data) usually don't fully understand how expensive, in terms of delta V, a large inclination change maneuver is.


I think the idea is that you plunge into the atmosphere, use lift to perform the orbital inclination change and then you raise your periapsis again.

I think you only need very little delta V to plunge back into the atmosphere from LEO.

The question is how much lift vs drag + delta V to lower and the raise you periapsis.

I think the space shuttle only had about 250m/s delta v once the yellow tank was exhausted, so those 250 m/s were enogh to complete both rasing the periapsis and then lowering it to de-orbit.

Think of a space-glider with one tip of its wings pointed straight down and the other straight up, if it has very little drag and a lot of lift, it could use its wings to maneuver north-south, change its orbital inclination, then when it gets out of the atmosphere again, once it reaches apoapsis it will spend some fuel to raise its periapsis again above the atmosphere, but KSP intuition is that if drag is low enough and lift is high enough, it could be better than to do an inclination change in vacuum.


I have so far resisted mechjeb (and other mods). Should I give it a try?


Yes. Some mods like kerbal engineer and machine everywhere makes thing less annoying, not easier. It’s the engines, fuel tanks, and science payloads that can break the balance.

As for mechjeb in particular, I never found it all that useful except when calculating rendezvous. I could do it myself, but I don’t want to bother with a protractor and calculator.


Mechjeb is also invaluable when doing preprogrammed burns on remote probes with a high light lag like you'll see in Realism Overhaul.

Timing a 30s burn when the probe takes 15m to get the signal is rather irritating.


Mechjeb can help you with the boring parts. First couple dozen launches or orbital intercepts are super-fun. But once your goals shift from "let's land on the Mun" to "let's send a 250 ton ship to Duna", assembling it in orbit from a dozen launches starts to feel like a chore.


Mechjeb was far more useful/necessary 3-5 years ago. The stock game has added so many features at this point that I really didn't feel the need for any mods at all when I picked it up again a few weeks ago.



No, it isn't a highway and you couldn't have a shuttle up there for months bouncing around from place to place.

You could have a few shuttles up there idling in various orbits ready to do a small number of bigger maneuvers to achieve a mission.

Alternatively you could have shuttles doing a whole lot rather slowly with electric propulsion.


Could it "scoop" matter out of the atmosphere that could be accelerated by solar or nuclear powered ion drive to use as propellant?

Alternatively, thinking about the Earth's magnetic field, what if it had a big current loop that could be activated to generate a force and change orbit.

I realize that the magnitude of these effects are probably too small to be significant, but could you in principle use them to repeatedly change orbit around earth, provided you have an abundant energy source?


scoop? no.

magnetic field? yes. - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrodynamic_tether


Unlikely it can scoop material and use it for propulsion just yet, though I have seen some articles about ion engines accelerating the rarified upper atmosphere being studied.


The ESA is developing an air-breathing electric thruster which sounds what you described:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering_Technolo...


Sorry to burst your bubble, but the satellite bandwidth just isn't there yet for Netflix at an affordable rate.


So they must be using physical DVDs, interesting.


> Prep for mining activities further out

AFAIK there is not a single element that is valuable enough to offset the gigantic costs of mining in space and moving bulk back to earth. The economics just don't work.


These guys think differently. https://www.planetaryresources.com


Literally all of these could occur more cheaply without deorbiting the spacecraft.


"Bringing back an opponent's satellite for examination"...


Sounds like the US started weaponizing space long before it began accusing China and Russia of doing the same.


A hypersonic missile is far more concerning than this. If we're talking about offensive capabilities...

Besides that's hardly a surprising statement. Of course they are. And Space Force isn't the start of some new space warfare agenda. It's just formalizing and likely just going to add administrative distractions for existing well-funded and productive engineering teams.


The only reason Russia spends money on hypersonic missiles is continuous enhancement of American missile defense system threatening to end mutually assured destruction


I'm mainly surprised that we have reusable space planes at all. You'd think that would get more attention.


this still gets launched with a rocket, it's basically a very small unmanned space shuttle, so it's not as "cool" as, say, something that goes to orbit from the ground on its own.


Are single-stage to orbit (SSTO) spaceplanes even possible on Earth with current chemical rockets? They're a PITA to build in Kerbal Space Program, and there the universe is 1/10 the size of the real one (albeit with the same gravitational acceleration).


There was a lot of discussion after Elon Musk said that Starship (aka the BFS aka Big "Falcon" Spaceship aka the second stage of their starship) will be able to do SSTO, however it would only be able to SSTO with virtually zero payload whatsoever, so isn't very useful.


They are possible, but not economically feasible. Tim Dodd has a fantastic video showing just how ineffective they are.

Two (or three) stage rockets are just so much more efficient.


Went and looked it up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sfc2Jg1gkKA

Tim Dodd (The Everyday Astronaut) is just a very good speaker on all space-related topics. Him and Scott Manley (with a healthy dose of Kerbal Space Program) are incredible teachers about space.


> NASA began the X-37 program in 1999;

Maybe officially, but I definitely know people who were working on a Space Plane program in the early 90s.


There have been people working on spaceplanes continuously since the Nixon administration. Shuttle was a spaceplane but there were/are lots of other programs that fit that title.


Personally, I put the beginning of this program with the NASA Lifting body program[1]. The most famous one for me being the M2-F2 which was shown crashing in the opening sequence of the six million dollar man TV series.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lifting_body#List_of_Armstrong...


Those who played the classic computer game Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space (which was completely open-sourced a few years ago: see https://www.raceintospace.org/) will remember that one of the key decisions in that game, which was all about building a space program that could get you to the moon, was whether to use traditional capsules (Gemini/Apollo on the US side, Voskhod/Soyuz for the USSR) in the mid-to-late game, or to go with reusable lifting body-type vehicles instead. The American player could build the "XMS-2", a fictional vehicle derived from the X-20 Dyna-Soar (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_X-20_Dyna-Soar), and the Soviet player could build a similarly fictional vehicle based on the MiG-105 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikoyan-Gurevich_MiG-105).

It was a big decision gameplay-wise, as capsules were much cheaper to research and purchase, but the reusability of mini-shuttles meant you didn't have to buy a whole new crew vehicle for each shot. So if you could scrounge up the money to buy a few in the mid-game, you could free up big bucks in the late game that would otherwise have gone towards buying all those capsules.


The (unfortunately named) Dynasoar, or X-20, strikes me as the first: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_X-20_Dyna-Soar

(So, Eisenhower.)


X-15 actually flew in space before the X-20 program. Not orbit, but a plane in space above 100km.

And there were plans to mount a deployable wing thing on Gemini, making it something like a spaceplane.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Gemini#Winged_Gemini

Most kerbal realworld thing ever:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gemini_paraglider.JPG


Without knowing anything about the classified missions of this thing, I can, with complete confidence, say that the program is mismanaged; my guess is the problem is at the very top.

The only unique quality of this vehicle is that it can re-enter the atmosphere and then be launched again. Everything it does while in orbit, including grabbing something to bring back, could be done by something else not unique.

Yet, they have exercised its unique capability only three times, and the rest of the time kept it to activities that could be better done without it.

The alternative is that there really isn't much use for this thing, so they keep it parked in orbit between uses.


Ralf Vandebergh has some photos of it on his twitter @ralfvandebergh https://twitter.com/ralfvandebergh

He has some good ISS captures too.


I dont consider the X-37 experimental anymore, how long has in been flying? It's kinda old news already, cool though.


Cool a mini space shuttle that is still flying around for testing stuff. Any chance it has seats and can be used for rescues?


Or to send a brave crew to an asteroid to deflect it from a calamitous earthbound trajectory?


Wait for Dream Chaser, first unmanned orbital flight planned for 2020. That one looks more promising, at least it's bigger and originally planned to be used manned.


There's also SpaceX's Dragon 2 and Boeing's Starliner coming soon.


Dream Chaser is way closer to this space plane in features, I think.


That's what the plan was (is maybe?) for the X-37C variant https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_X-37#X-37C


to rescue what exactly?


Presumably ISS? Seems unlikely US government would expose a military asset to the Russians willingly like that.

Also life support systems are heavy and that will cut into the delta-v budget of the craft.


I don't think the main mystery and classification is about the craft itself but about the cargoes and missions it takes. It probably could be outfitted to act as a rescue craft for 1-2 astronauts though in a pinch all you really need is a way to strap the astronauts in and the pack from their space suits for some short term life support (or maybe even just a CO2 scrubber pack and an oxygen bottle if the interior is already thermally managed enough for the astronaut to survive) being much smaller than the shuttle it can land at more places so they wouldn't have to be in the craft long.


People in the International Space Station?


They have Soyuz capsules that do exactly that


Chinese or Russian satellite “rescuer”.


Well, the Russians are also doing some shady stuff... They call it the Sputnik Inspektor.

https://space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/kosmos-2519.htm


I won't be surprised if a military satellite of any state capable of launching military satellites will self-destruct if taken away forcibly from the designated orbit. A simple acceleration test would suffice.

I also won't be surprised if when self-destructing, such satellite will try to deliberately damage everything in its close vicinity.


I don’t think they make boobytrapped satellites that explode, but they may remotely activate a self-destruct process which renders abduction pointless.

If they exploded it wouldn’t it create more problems than it solves in terms of more flying debris they have to track as well as friendlies in the same orbital path? (Like when Iridium 33 crashed into a defunct soviet satellite.)


I also don’t think the attack would involve changing orbits. The attack would be inserting electronic backdoor etc.


Nah. Bolt cutters on an arm, or even just spray paint. You don’t need to be close to do an electronic attack. If you’re close, you might as well hit it with a hammer or snip the antenna and solar arrays off.


This kind of sudden malfunction, along with acceleration not due to firing of any engines, would be a signal for the self-destruction device, likely chemically powered (explosive) and mechanically actuated. It would be sure to shatter the interesting electronic parts, burning or detonating any remaining fuel for bonus points.


I would be very surprised if any orbiting spacecraft built today, or currently being planned has any sort of self destruct. We're talking about capabilities that are still theoretical, albeit pretty plausible and feasible.

Anyway, who cares if the self destruct goes off? You're breaking the satellite anyway, and if you were really concerned, about attacker survivability, just launch a gun on board, like Salyut 3.

https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a18187/her...


Indeed; there are many cheaper ways to destroy a satellite, and (IDK if cheaper) air-to-space anti-sat missiles are in service for decades.


I suspect the arguments about how much launch mass to devote to self destruct explosive and mechanism - compared to useful payload or manoeuvring propellant - would be interesting to see...


I suppose your self-destruct mechanism could be "aim retrograde and burn all remaining propellant". Might not turn out well for a spaceplane that latched onto such satellite.


You need an ounce or two of HE, strategically placed, to destroy the sensitive parts with confidence. Nobody needs to shatter the entire satellite to pieces.


mems accel gyro on the sat to detect when an exterior craft docs, rig up some airbags to propel shrapnel / acid / thermite in all directions when it triggers.

Cheap satellite does asymmetrical damage to space plane.


Backdoor? Hmm, I wonder how useful it would be when everything is encrypted to the brim.

It could report the orientation and thus e.g. the telescope direction. But this can be done remotely, too, with a large enough telescope, maybe on the same orbit.


That could be jammed.


"Liberator"


Hold still while I freedom you!


Could you please review the site guidelines and not post unsubstantive comments to HN? We ban accounts that repeatedly do that because we're trying for a bit better than internet default here.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Sorry - I did not mean to contribute to BS drive-by comments. I will refrain from doing so in the future.

Apologies.


Exactly!


our dreams


Why does the vehicle look rusty? And what the the duct tape looking stuff on the wing leading edge?


The vehicle in the photo has clearly been processed, and is ready for handling or shipping. Not sure if the photo is after-flight or perhaps before.

>rusty

The "rusty" parts look like crevices between protective tiles being sealed with kapton tape[1] - general protective material that handles well extreme environment, and is often used in consumer electronics, especially in places where high temperatures are expected.

>duct tape looking stuff on the wing leading edge

Looks like temporary protective coating of foam, for safe on the ground handling, to prevent damage to the wing leading edge. If the leading edge is anything similar to Space Shuttle's, it's hollow inside, surprisingly thin, and somewhat brittle. Any cracks or damage would cause risk of overheating during re-entry, thus need for extra protection. --

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kapton


Anyone with links to credible speculation on the x-37’s mission?


https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/07/23/former-secaf-...

Long term heat management hardware for space electronics. Among other things no doubt.


"I think it creates more misconceptions about what the mission of the X-37B is and could lead to more international concerns that it's some type of weapons platform," Weeden said. "I think that works against U.S. interests because it will create more diplomatic problems for the U.S. when it tries to point out Russian and Chinese 'unusual behavior in space' and push for discussions on space norms of behavior."

In short, "it gives Russia and China one more talking point about how the U.S. is the one 'weaponizing' space, even if that's not true," he said.

That's a huge potential downside. Like the Soviets believing in US first strike intent. Having this craft do odd things only reinforces belief the US is not operating in good faith at all times. And this, when manned spaceflight to the iss depends on international cooperation still.


>>"Like the Soviets believing in US first strike intent."

the soviets? We are really going back, aren't we?


Excellent. Never the less, still super curious about the tictac thing. :)




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