Added 2 new A* pages:Spaceship stuff happened today! Or space *plane* stuff, anyway. I happened across this article saying that the Air Force's top secret X-37B "space plane" had landed successfully at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after 220 days in orbit, doing they won't say what, except that it's "space shuttle kinds of activities," which really could mean anything since the Air Force ran top-secret Space Shuttle missions for years from that same base (more on that below).|
Speaking of space shuttle activities, the unmanned X-37 was originally a NASA project (under the name "X-37A"; with the Air Force, since 2004, it's "B"), and in fact it looks a lot like a miniature Space Shuttle; with a 14 ft wingspan it's about 1/5th the size of the Shuttle, and only 5% as heavy. In fact, under NASA, where it started out in design phases in 1999, it was intended to go up in the Space Shuttle's cargo hold, but the Air Force has redesigned it as "B" for launch in disposable rockets. Here's the little thing back on April 13th, being prepared for loading into the Atlas V launch rocket (not as powerful as the old Saturn V's I was talking about yesterday) that would fire it into orbit nine days later:
image by USAF (source)
Looks like it's got a booster module on the back there; you can see a guy behind it at the bottom for scale. According to this spaceflightnow.com article, the X-37 unfurls solar panels (the Air Force's X-37 fact sheet says they're "Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries") to power itself in orbit, rather than relying on battery power like the Shuttle, and that gives it a long mission life--the Shuttle only stays up for a week or so, but this first X-37B mission was over seven months! And it wasn't all that secret; amateur spacewatchers even claim to have spotted it cruising around up there (not-very-detailed purported video of it!). Here's a diagram of the X-37 on space.com.
Here it is posing cheekily on the runway; I think this might have been before its final heat tiling / painting:
photo by USAF (source)
Those angled tail fins are called "ruddervators." :P
That spaceflightnow.com article mentions some interesting stuff about the history of the Air Force's attempts to get a reusable space vehicle. They were involved with the Space Shuttle's earliest conceptual designs in 1971, and up until 1992, they even launched Space Shuttles from Vandenberg on top secret polar orbit missions with classified payloads. :o That stopped after the Challenger shuttle disaster, and wouldn't you know it, the X-37 shifted from NASA to the Air Force after the Columbia shuttle disaster.
But the Air Force's space plane endeavors go way back to the beginnings of the Space Race even. In the late 50's through early 60's they were working on the X-20 Dyna-Soar (for "Dynamic Soarer," since it was to be capable of return flights, unlike the single-use rockets otherwise in use at the time)
NASA photo of an X-20 mockup (source)
but the project was canceled before construction started, due to problems over finding a launch rocket for it, and because the Air Force was unable to explain why they needed such an expensive reusable space vehicle (presumably they've come up with some more convincing arguments in the succeeding decades!). (And their attempt at a manned space station, the Manned Orbital Laboratory, was also canceled in the '60's for similar reasons.) But lessons learned in the X-20's development were put to use later for the Space Shuttle.
Apparently the Air Force is pretty happy with the X-37B, though, since even before its successful landing from orbit, they'd already ordered a second one, scheduled to start test flights in 2011. So if you ever spot a tiny space ship tailing you in your rear-view mirror (or maybe through your sunroof, rather), it very well could be one of these little X-37Bs!