Threat from space
On May 16, the American Atlas V launch vehicle (the one that uses the Russian “discord engine” RD-180 in the first stage) will launch the experimental X-37B spacecraft from the Cape Canaveral cosmodrome. This will be the sixth launch of the spacecraft and one of the most important in its short history. “More experiments will be carried out on board than during previous X-37B flights,” US Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said earlier in a video conference hosted by the Space Foundation.
The fact is that as part of the new mission, the device will be launched for the first time with a service module, without which the X-37B cannot be considered “full-fledged.” In general, the X-37B can, without any exaggeration, be called the most mysterious spacecraft of our days, giving rise to almost conspiracy theories. Recall that a few years ago, at the suggestion of the current head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, the X-37B became a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”
“We, accordingly, will avoid any public statements, but at the same time we perfectly understand that this can be, and it is likely that weapons of mass destruction, if, God forbid, they are placed in space, can plan from above,”
– said then the head of the space department of the Russian Federation.
The Americans themselves are partly to blame for the formation of this image: they have long concealed the purpose of the X-37B and now, probably, they also do not tell the whole truth.
What is generally known about this orbital plane? Previously, the apparatus was not (at least formally) part of any major military projects. Back in the late 90s, Boeing and NASA began work on it. Then financial problems made themselves felt, and the project was transferred to the defense research agency DARPA. Built as part of the updated program, the X-37A has never flown into space, and in 2006 the US Air Force announced that they would now lead the project: from now on it was named X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. The official goal of the program is to develop reusable technologies.
Attempt number six
Regardless of the mission, the X-37B has every reason to be proud. The small nine-meter spacecraft has already made five successful launches and successful returns: four times it was launched with Atlas V, one with Falcon-9. As part of the fourth launch, he set a current record for himself, having spent 718 days in orbit. As part of the first mission, the spacecraft stayed in orbit for “only” 224 days.
As you can clearly see, we are talking about really long missions, during which you can do a lot. What will the X-37B do now?
It must be said that the US authorities described the goals and objectives of the mission, not forgetting to mention the great role of the experiments being carried out.
“Each launch represents a significant milestone and a step forward in how we rapidly build, test and deploy space systems,”
– said the commander of the US Space Force, Air Force General John Raymond.
It is reported that as part of the new mission, NASA will study the effects of radiation and other phenomena on samples of seeds and plants that can be eaten. The Pentagon also said that the orbiting plane will carry a small satellite FalconSat-8, which was developed by the US Air Force Academy, into space. It is expected to allow five experiments. In fact, we are talking about an educational platform.
Much more interesting is another experiment that will be carried out in the interests of the US Navy Research Laboratory. We are talking about the conversion of solar energy into radio frequency microwave energy with the subsequent study of the possibility of its transmission to Earth. According to experts, this direction promises great opportunities in the future, including in the military sphere. As noted by The Drive in “X-37B Space Plane’s Microwave Power Beam Experiment Is A Way Bigger Deal Than It Seems,” such technologies can provide virtually “unlimited” lifespan for unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites.
It is noted that back in 2019, specialists from the Fleet Research Laboratory conducted a ground experiment, during which energy with a capacity of two kilowatts was successfully transmitted over a distance of 300 meters. And during tests carried out in May 2019, the infrared laser successfully transmitted 400 watts of power over a distance of 325 meters. The very first phase of the project was completed several years ago: then the energy was transmitted via cable to the submarine.
According to Dr. Paul Jaffe, an engineer at the US Navy Research Laboratory, the technology will open up entirely new frontiers in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. “If you have an electric drone that can fly for over an hour, you’re doing well,” says Jaffe.
“If we had a way to make the drones fly endlessly, it would have far-reaching consequences. Thanks to powerful radiation, we have a way to do this. “
The Drive recalls that back in 2016, the US Navy received a patent for a system invented by Jaffe. However, it would not be entirely correct to call him a pioneer. The US Air Force began testing lasers as a power source for small light aircraft back in the 1980s. Then the military managed to create a small cone-shaped apparatus, set in motion only by laser beams. However, the improved technology can also be used for fairly large aircraft. It remains to add that according to a press release from the Navy.mil website (the official website of the United States Navy), it has also been approved for use by the Marine Corps, Ground Forces and the United States Air Force.
However, the experiment of the Naval Research Laboratory does not provide a complete picture of the purpose of the spacecraft. Experts have previously noted that launching cargo into orbit using the X-37B is economically unprofitable – there are much simpler and proven ways to conduct experiments in orbit.
Therefore, as we have already noted above, there are alternative versions about the purpose of the Boeing brainchild. Back in 2016, the Space.com portal interviewed American experts on this matter, and many of them agreed that the spacecraft is a prototype of an interceptor capable of destroying artificial satellites. Well, the direct purpose of the launches is supposedly to demonstrate that this method is economically more expedient than the use of interceptor missiles.
By the way, in the past, the Dutch amateur astronomer Ralph Vandenberg filmed a spacecraft during one of its missions.
“I hunted OTV-5 for months and visually spotted it in May. When I tried to observe it again in mid-June, at a certain time it was not in the predicted orbit. It turned out that he maneuvered to another orbit “,
– said the specialist on his Twitter.
Unfortunately, neither the photo taken then, nor the announcement of new experiments give us an answer about the purpose of the X-37B. Perhaps new data will appear after the return of the device to Earth.