back to article US X-37B robot minishuttle: 'Secret space warplane'?

Tomorrow, the US Air Force will finally launch the long-delayed X-37B unmanned mini space shuttle, dubbed by the Iranian government a "secret space warplane". But what is it actually for? Probably nothing hostile, most of the time, is the answer. But it could do some quite naughty and interesting things if required - and what' …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    LEGO Space

    Nice to see LEGO getting involved there, as well.

  2. Anonymous Bastard

    Lego model

    Doesn't look real to me. It even has some 2-by-6-ers lining the 'hangar'!

    1. Andrew Newstead

      not quite...

      The "hanger" is the nose cone fairing of the launcher and the "2-by-6-ers" are aluminium "egg trays" acting as sound deadning insulation. It gets noisy enough to phyically break things in there at launch.

  3. Dave Bell

    Wrong-sized keyhole

    There's some pretty basic optical theory which limits what you can do with an optical system of a specific size, so an X-37 derivative smaller than the Shuttle is not going to be able to handle some spy satellites.

    1. ZombieApoc

      red-neck it

      That's why they have the tow-hitch and the Git-R-Done sticker on the back. They can pull right up to "the Baddies" Sat and just toss a rope around her and drag it back on down to the United States of Jesus for us to cleanse it and learn.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Play Misty for me

    Well, the Misty programme is getting a little long in the tooth.. as the colonials say, "you do the math"..

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Shit, Matt Irvine was right

    future spacecraft will indeed be made by kitbashing Airfix Space Shuttle and Saturn V kits, then detailing their launch bays with bits of Hornby trackside furniture

    1. Poor Coco

      Airfix? Hornby?

      Alert James May at once!

  6. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Major shuttle features were shaped by the USAF spec

    The payload bay size and mass (NASA wanted something about 1/3 the payload target, which like the cross range target has *never* been met or actually needed).

    And the cross range, which drove most of the 50 000 hours of wind tunnel tests to get the shape.

    Somewhat ironically a few years later the AIr Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory came up with the FDL5 layout which has *much* better hypersonic L/D (IIRC c2.8 Vs Shuttle's 1.1 at M5).

    Shuttles tendency to be grounded for years at a time also got the EELV programme running to develop Atlas V and Delta IV in the first place.

    After 5 decades Dynasoar (well the idea of a hypersonic glider sitting on top of a *very* large ELV) finally flies.

    Now all that's needed is to build one big enough and the USAF fighter mafia will be in hog heaven.

    *Nothing* beats piloting a landing from M23.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Shuttle polar orbits

    It was the Shuttle's ability to fly polar orbits that really freaked the Kremlin into funding Buran. The Soviet military got it into their minds that a Shuttle carrying a nuclear weapon could lob a warhead at the Soviet Union, avoiding all of their early warning systems and anti-missile networks and still be back in California in time for mai-tais.

    Brezhnev not only ordered the horrendously expensive Buran project, but also got the USSR to resume anti-satellite weapon research; both of which were canned right at the collapse of the Soviet Union. They got quite a long way, right up to launching the enormous Polyus satellite; which failed to reach orbit - but looks wonderfully sinister on its Gerry Andersonesque launcher:

    If you want the world to end in a thermonuclear toasting you want it to end because of weapons that look the part.

    Getting the Shuttle to fly polar orbits would probably ended in disaster even if the Soviet Union wasn't panicked into lobbing a missile back at the US. The launches would have required extremely light weight solid rocket boosters. These were canned after Challenger exploded because they would have been even more prone to joint failure.

    1. Anonymous Coward


      I believe that the only reason the SSB had joints in the first place was political. In order to spread the pork around the states Morton Thiokol in Utah got the job of building them.

      As there was no other heavy-lift transport system available apart from rail available, the SSB's were designed in segments so that the train could go round curves in the track.

      So, less initial pork-based decisions = no Challenger disaster, and a whole different history for NASA.

      1. Anonymous Coward


        There is a very practical reason for the SRBs being in segments... for serviceability. After launch and recovery Thiokol needs to clean out the residue solid fuel with high pressure water hoses. It is tremendously easier to do this with smaller segments than having to have someone climb all the way inside the length of the booster.

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge


        "I believe that the only reason the SSB had joints in the first place was political. In order to spread the pork around the states Morton Thiokol in Utah got the job of building them."

        I'm sure NASA would argue this one. However it *is* a fact that Morton Thiokol's design was the lowest scored design. Then the NASA head at the time (James Webb IIRC) got a visit from a group of elders from the Church of Latterday Saints.

        The designs were re-scored and the rest is history. Morton didn't have to lay off staff and IIRC Lockheed (who I think had the original 1 piece winning design) pulled out of large solid booster production forever.

        BTW NASA commissioned McDonal Douglas to do a safety study on the SRB's. They concluded on the whole the design was sound. There was just *one* major area which if it failed would be a disaster.

        The inter-segment joints.

        They were right.

        1. Anonymous Coward

          @John Smith 19 - who visited whom?

          Sticky stuff to prove, ya - if the "elders" visit happened, surely the nature of the visit would not have been recorded on the books.

          Hey, well the more that private industry would become actually able to sustain NASA-grade operations, without fail, *then* the more that the space program would become privatized ... that would be the more that decisions like that would be made squarely within the dynamics of private industry, and without regards to any real or "imagined" religious-political manipulation of government chiefs.

          Anonymous because some people are downright obsessed about their perceived social status, out here

    2. moonface


      Wow - that is incredible. I thought my general knowledge was pretty good but this is the first time I have ever seen this.

      My god the western media must have been good, well at least a good job of keeping me ignorant of such Soviet technological advances!

      It is so similar in design to the Shuttle that there must be a few embarrassing spy related stories there!

      As the cold war is over and we are now all one space faring happy family. I suppose it is a shame the hanger collapsed on it.

      1. Spikehead


        The Polyus is on the same launch system (Energia) that sent Buran on it's one and only orbital excursion. An unmanned launch that ended with a fully automated landing at the Baikonur cosmodrome (something the shuttle couldn't do - needs someone to lower the undercarriage!).

      2. Anonymous Coward

        I'm guessing here...

        but if you know nothing of Buran, then I'm betting you've not heard of Concordski either?

        eyes wide shut.

      3. John Smith 19 Gold badge


        "It is so similar in design to the Shuttle that there must be a few embarrassing spy related stories there!"

        Not really. Although the similarity is *no* accident.

        The USSR studied *all* open literature on the Shuttle programme and cross checked against what their launchers could achieve in terms of launch pad turnaround, cost, payload etc.

        Their conclusion. The numbers just did *not* add up. QED The US had *other* reasons for this *particular* design, but they could not figure out what they were.

        This convinced the leadership at the time to green light a *very* similar shaped vehicle, so when they *did* figure out its additional missions (or the US flew one of them) the could fly them as well.

        In fact NASA was just rather delusional about what launch costs its design could save. Russia gave NASA *much* more credit that it actually deserved. Russian launch operations are highly automated. AFAIK only Sealaunch has really low levels of on board staff during fueling and launch.

    3. Havin_it

      Does Polyus mean

      "Punisher", or maybe "Intruder"?

      I'm bloody glad if that thing didn't make it into orbit - I don't fancy the idea of Putin menacing us all with his 50-foot Black Dong of Death.

    4. Anonymous Coward


      If this flies Putin and Medvedev will unfreeze the Hurricane interceptor (aka Lapot) in a jiffie and all the movement back of the doom clock gained from the new nuclear treaties will be gone overnight. Someone is playing with fire here. BAD IDEA... VERY BAD ONE...

  8. MonkeyBot


    It wouldn't be that covert after the first few satellites disappear over America and they're the only ones with the secret space warplane.

    1. Ed Blackshaw Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      How would you know though?

      I would have thought that the whole point of a 'secret space warplane' would be the secret part...

      1. MonkeyBot

        Maybe it's a double bluff

        Whilst we're all looking up, no-one will notice the extra double secret mole-car tunneling to the centre of the Earth.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "It wouldn't be that covert after the first few satellites disappear over America and they're the only ones with the secret space warplane."

      In principle, no.

      Not many countries have radar that is *designed* to look upward into space. AFAIK the US and former USSR being the only ones.

      The USAF would have ensured the Shuttle and satellite to be "acquired" were out of range of either the Russians (or both) sets of radar ("We have no idea what happened to your satellite either") at the time.

      In hindsight it's not clear how well thought through this plan was. Other posters pointed out that the sats attitude control (most reconnaissance have fairly precise pointing requirements and would react quickly to being flipped about) would start firing thrusters like crazy when they tried to put a harness on it.

      Note that the actual propellant is less of a threat as Shuttle has carried fully fueled satellites to orbit before now. However their tanks were sealed and the satellite not actively trying to maneuver inside the payload bay while landing. Unless *fully* disabled that would make de-orbit and landing pretty interesting.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't forget

    NASA basically punted it to the USAF after they ran out of money for anything other than Shuttle/ISS. So the USAF probably doesn't really know what it's for either, and you *know* they're going to look at it and go "oooh! space fighter!" themselves.

  10. Winston Smith

    Blofeld approves!

    of the Mission 3B plan.

  11. Andrew Newstead

    X-20 Dyna-Soar anyone?

    So finally, the USAF is getting a capability that they have been after since the late 50's, a spaceplane!

    The dimensions and apparent capabilities of this vehicle do seem to be similar to the X-20 space glider that was cancelled by Mcnamara in the early 60's. A lot of the missions put forward for this craft tended towards various reconnisance tasks. However a lot of these are now carried out by satellites more efficiently. Where a spaceplane capability would score is if you need to make a quick response overflight, the kind of thing that the old SR71 Blackbird was good at. It's no secret that the Blackbird's capability has been missed in the last 15 years.

    Bear in mind (and Lewis hints at this too) that this is an X-Plane, it is an experimental vehicle designed to demonstrate and prove a capability. What the USAF will eventually deploy may be completely different to the X-37B and be launched in a completely different way. This latter suggestion is based on two pieces of information, both in the public domain.

    1. Lockheed has been testing models of a fly-back rocket booster over that last few years and are remaining tight lipped over it's purpose.

    2. I saw a report yesterday about a new USAF requirement for a vertical launch flyback booster vehicle for satellite launch.

    Putting these two together you come with a potential launcher for an evolved X-37 - that incidently would not look unsimilar to the original space shuttle concepts from the early 70's.

    Will this actually happen? Normally I would say no, most of the USAF space vehicle projects we know of get cancelled. But this time?

    Well, they are about to actually fly hardware so who knows?

    Andrew Newstead

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Covert recovery unlikely

    Covert recovery of foreign satellites would be highly unlikely due to the hazards imposed by thrusters and the like. The mere act of interfering with a satellite's orientation would trigger its attitude control system to recover from the perturbation, firing thrusters and so forth.

    In order to snag said vehicle, you'd have to find a way to disable the thrusters -- hot gas, cold gas, or whatever. Spin stabilized vehicles would be even more difficult to snag -- imagine snagging a misbehaving gyroscope weighting hundreds, or even thousands of pounds.

    Once snagged, you'd still have the hazard of dealing with hydrazine or any number of equally nasty fuels.

    Snoop, damage, disable maybe. Recover, no.

    1. Ian Halstead

      Hmmmm... disabling a satellite the fun way.

      Two or three thrust reversers fitted over carefully chosen nozzles should do it. Just a little nudge before you leave would be all that's required.

  13. blackworx

    Cool, but...

    ...every time I see something like this I'm reminded of one of Bill Hicks' many rants on the subject...

    "Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace."

  14. Derek Hellam
    Black Helicopters

    Amerika Bomber?

    Don't know why, but when I saw the video of it landing I just thought of Eugen Sänger's Silbervogel, (silverbird) a sub orbital bomber.

  15. Adrian Esdaile
    Black Helicopters

    So they've finally caught up with the Russians eh?

    So the US have finally done what Russian managed to do with Spiral back in about 1983, giving Australia a chance to complain that the eeeeeeevil USSR were dumping potato peelings in the Indian Ocean. mwahahaha! ze kommunist plan fur ze takeover world is komplete wiz ze deploymentski off potatoes! Oh, and wave at the Aussie P3s taking pics of the Spiral eh, comrades?

    As for single polar-orbit - that was to drop nukes on Moscow wasn't it? I guess they could launch a KH sat as well *cough* Hubble blinded to obfuscate Keyhole capabilities *cough* like no-one would notice.... Hubble being a converted KH for those who don't keep up. Make you wonder about all the hullabaloo keeping Hubble up there and how dangerous it all is, when even Supa-Sekrit military flight the Shuttle has done was doing pretty much exactly the same thing.

    Being a Rutan fanboi, I guessed WK was being used for this, and I think Rutan had a hand in X37 development too. I guess the Delta gives them hefty payloads, but it would have been interesting to see if the X37 could at least go suborbital from a WK launcher.

    I would also hazard a guess that DARPA are having a long hard look at Virgin's USS Enterprise and making sure not too much of their ideas are getting leaked. Rutan knows how to work with supa-sekrisy, but I've heard him speak and he doesn't much care for the US military-industrial mindset, though he is quite happy to relieve them of cash, and why not!

    Hark, is that the sound of silent black helicopters I don't hear?

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Adrian Esdaile

      "Hubble being a converted KH for those who don't keep up. Make you wonder about all the hullabaloo keeping Hubble up there and how dangerous it all is,"

      If only. IIRC the first Shuttle servicing mission on Hubble was to corrected the optical path because the company which ground the lenses (and did so for various US spy sats) cocked the job. They mis-ground the lenses and then managed to mis-set the test kit so instead of picking up the error it canceled it *out*. The solar panels *were* lifted off a recon sat design. They *also* had to be fixed. Hubble flies a *lot* higher than recon sats and was designed to last a *lot* longer. Things which will fail in say 6 months or a a year (perfectly acceptable for a spy sat) will not cut it for Hubble.

      BTW Hubble is probably the *only* major NASA mission that actually used Shuttle even partly the way it was meant to be used. Launching a core system. Replenishing it and upgrading it over time. The full cycle would have involved returning Hubble to Earth and replacing it with Hubble 2 (or whatever you wanted to call it).

      "I guessed WK was being used for this, and I think Rutan had a hand in X37 development too. "

      And I expect it will be used for a lot more besides. They *might* even build a few more. It's a versatile test and launch platform. Probably comes under those stupid ITAR regs though.

      "I guess the Delta gives them hefty payloads"

      If you're referring to the launcher that's an Atlas V. The baseline is about 24000lb to LEO. Cost listed by USAF in 2004 was c$138m.

      "but it would have been interesting to see if the X37 could at least go suborbital from a WK launcher"

      If it's still running that rocketdyne AR4 engine from the 1950s (or a new storable unit with the same thrust) it's doubtful it would get as fast as the Virgin Galactic vehicle (IE M3). Engines for vacuum use tend to have *very* big expansion ratios. They tend to have severe flow separation problems

      "I would also hazard a guess that DARPA are having a long hard look at Virgin's USS Enterprise and making sure not too much of their ideas are getting leaked."

      ITAR (which is what you're talking about) comes under a department of the DoD, not DARPA's responsibility. ITAR rules are staggeringly dumb (No "grandfathering" for example. You can buy a part in a hardware store but once its *incorporated* in a *rocket* its subject to export regulations and other assorted BS thanks to a 100 yr old cracker Senator who should have died a long time ago).

      "Hark, is that the sound of silent black helicopters I don't hear?"


    2. Anonymous Coward

      @ Adrian Esdaile

      Reading that was painful. Thanks for the headache.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What's it for?

    It's for the same as most of the US budget - keeping the military stocked with toys and jobs. That's what happens when you let the military run the country: the country gets run for the military.

  17. Scott 19


    I'm sure i've seen a documentory about these, i seem to rememebr the title of the program was Moon Raker or something?

    Although the head security guy does fall in love.

  18. andy gibson

    does this mean

    NASA = Cardassian High Command

    USAF = Obsidian Order

    Or any other such trekkie reference. Apologies, I just watched an episode of DS9 where Riker stole the Defiant.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    More of this kind of thing

    Splendid article, first time I've seen that. The tail fins (possibly not the right word) in the second pic make it look distinctly like Thunderbird 1!

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Mass produced, off earth nukes?

    With spaceships, I suppose USA could fill them with nukes and have them move around in space somewhere inside the solar system, like space ships, then have them as an alternative to having any earth bound nukes, while simultaniously promoting a world (earth) free of nuclear weapons.

    Maybe they could be parked on the moon until they were to be used, or just being left there as a deterrent? :)

    These shuttles looks like to be much smaller than the familiar space shuttles. I suppose they could be mass produced.

  21. jon 72

    Blast from the past

    First the X-20 Dyna-Soar, now this old 'Space Cowboy' can't wait for the US Marine Corps to start using the Pegasus SSTO as rapid troop transports. Dust off those fifty year old plans the public will never notice, why should congress?

    The IT angle - What OS are they running?

    Make a for a good DR Who episode, the doctor arrives in Florida to prevent M$ Windows from escaping the Earth and causing havoc across the galaxy for millenia...

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "now this old 'Space Cowboy' can't wait for the US Marine Corps to start using the Pegasus SSTO as rapid troop transports."

      Dream on.

      1) It's got no *wings*. Big drawback for a USAF funded project. Yes dropping a Marine Division (IIRC) *anywhere* in the world within 45 mins (it's suborbital) does sound like quite a handy capability to have. However

      2) It's got no *wings*.

      3) SSTO is *hard*. It requires *careful* engineering, *very* close attention to mass estimation and weight control and has limited cross range (although it could be said the answer to "where can you land an SSTO holding a Marine Division" is "pretty much anywhere you want.")

      Mine would have a copy of "Frontiers of Space" in it if it had not gone walkabout.

      1. jon 72

        Put this in your pocket..

        Emergence by David R. Palmer.. Doomsday Bomb in space shuttle

  22. Mike H.

    looks like....

    the Top Gear team has been busy again :)

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Covert recovery unlikely?

    Haha, I did not think of the possibility of these vehicles capturing other nations satelites.

    Afaik, there are EMP munitions (non nuclear) that perhaps could be used to disable satelites prior to retrival. And if retrival isn't the objective, then mabye killing off select satelites could be an idea?

    Maybe the shuttles could contain equipment that makes it possible to put a satelite under direct surveillance?

    Fun to speculate!

  24. Anonymous Coward

    Because it has to be said...

    I for one welcome our satellite-snatching, stealth-nuke-dropping, "we're watching Paris Hilton sunning herself by the pool from orbit" overlords!!!!

    (Note that due to my skillful writing, this post could also qualify for the Paris Hilton angle icon. Sadly, there is only room for one icon, so I chose the welcome mat. However, let me say by way of apology to Paris that the welcome mat is out for her anytime.)

    1. Paris Hilton
      Paris Hilton

      Apology Accepted.

      Although I dont have a welcome mat, sorry.

  25. Cheese

    Scooping up a target

    Wasn't this the theme to an old James Bond movie?

    Is Ernst Stavro Blofeld secretly building a X37 launch site inside an old volcano?

  26. cmaurand

    Wing Shape

    That wing shape is needed to support the extremely high angles of attack needed during reentry. its also the same wing shape as the Mig 29/31, the corresponding Sukhoi's as well as the F/A-18 and the F16.

    In a dogfight its not about how fast you can go, its about how slow you can go.

  27. Anonymous Coward


    That shagadelic space-bird - I wonder if it could also carry supply payloads to the ISS? Gin and tonic in orbit, baby?

  28. John Smith 19 Gold badge


    "That wing shape is needed to support the extremely high angles of attack needed during reentry."

    I think not.

    The Shuttle does indeed make re-entry at about 70 degrees to the airflow. In essence it come in on its belly, *just* like a capsule. The plan form is *all* about the cross range of an unpowered hypersonic glider. Media shots of the Shuttle (which only show it a *long* time after it has lost 5/6 of its orbital speed give a *very* misleading impression of how it actually re-enters)

    I can't comment on the aircraft mentioned but I would note they spend *most* of their careers in horizontal flight at fairly low AoA. The double delta is quite a popular layout for M1-M2 aircraft.

    The too issues are quite distinct.

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