They obviously watched or read "Ice Station Zebra"
The United States Air Force will mount the third mission into space by its small space-shuttle lookalikes, the X-37Bs (once memorably dubbed "secret space warplanes" by the Iranian government) on Tuesday if all goes to plan. The third Orbital Test Vehicle mission, aka OTV-3, will see the same X-37B which flew the inaugural OTV …
"They obviously watched or read "Ice Station Zebra""
Ice Station Zebra is said to have been inspired by real events when a film capsule came down on part of one of the Scandinavian countries near the border of the former USSR.
The area had been settled by quite a number of Russians from over the border. One of whom seems to have found it and decided to return to the Rodina.
This is wishful thinking but perhaps the X-37B isn't tech for spying/warfare after all. Maybe the USAF have finally given up on NASA and decided that the only way to get any meaningful research done in space within a reasonable time-frame is to do it out of sight of the congressmen that continually cut the space exploration budget?
You might laugh at the idea of a US military organisation being interested in pure exploration but consider this; flyboys like to actually be in the craft they're piloting. Air warfare here on earth looks to be heading towards unmanned, remotely controlled drones. Doing any flying on other worlds requires a pilot on-board the actual craft because of the time delay.
Doesn't seem likely though.
"flyboys like to actually be in the craft they're piloting."
Umm. Yes they do.
And they like their highly trained, high-kudos jobs, too. They don't like competition from NCOs who can do the job cheaper. I don't know where you got your information, but the reality is that there is enormous resistance to UAVs in the parts of the air-force that are being threatened by them.
I think you may have misread my post. I said they like being in the craft they're piloting. Whether they resist the move to UAVs or not, it is likely that drones will become the de-facto aerial weapon. They're cheaper to build and their operators are cheaper to train.
I was reasoning that the only place 'real' pilots could maintain their 'highly trained, high-kudos jobs' was on other planets because the time delay makes flying drones remotely from Earth an impossibility. Now that I've thought about it a bit more though, it'd probably be easier to place a command centre on another planet (or possibly in orbit) and use UAVs for the exploration.
What can you do with this? Launch satellites? Yes, but it's easier and simpler to use a rocket rather than a mini-spaceplane on top of a rocket.
Do general research? Yes, but it's easier and simpler to do it without a spaceplane, just throw up a capsule (Dragon, CST-100, Orion etc) and do it there.
To me, the X-37 is built for Space Control (Defensive or Offensive). Refuelling/repairing satellites? A Dragon capsule can do that and probably cheaper too.
Carrying an anti-satellite weapon? Yes, it's capable of doing that.
But wait, wouldn't it need to be able to significantly change its orbit for a mission like that? Why yes, and it's supposed to be able to do that - a delta-V capacity of 3.1km/sec was an early mission requirement.
Weaponising space - the last thing we want to do in the last place we want to do it.
Re: anti-satellite weapons...
Yes, you could use it for that, but guided-missile cruisers can do that as well. Standard Missile 3 works adequately as a low-LEO (150 statute miles) anti-sat weapon.
Or the F-15 can do it, throwing an ASM-135 all the way up to 345 miles.
Oh, and I doubt seriously the X-37 was hovering over China, or anywhere else. Following an orbit that passes over China, perhaps, but not hovering.
I agree with the others, the hovering claim must be wrong. The mechanics for hovering over China are not possible with this craft.
The only thing that this brings is the ability to return stuff from space. The fact that they are staying up for 460+ days should be key, but none of these hypotheses give compelling explanations.
You literally cannot launch a satellite with it because it IS a satellite. You need a satellite lifter (an Atlas V launch vehicle) to lift it. It is, itself a satellite bus that you can recover, upgrade / modify and use again.
The main purpose mighhgt be exposure testing pf the machine itself. The concept of the vehicle is that it is a newer heat shield technology than the shuttle that is supposed to remain usable after an extended period in orbit.
You can also test various instruments across multiple flights with buying new satellite buses each time, and finally, bring the satellite down and reinstall it into a different orbit (again without having to buy a new sat).
If efforts from the likes of SpaceX come to fruition and radically lower launch costs, than the cost of the satellite bus will become a much greater fraction of the mission. This might be them working ahead.
The El Reg line that is. If the mission requirements were for a satellite platform for quick testing of arbitrary instrument packages a basic disposable system designed to sit under a fairing would have been faster and cheaper to design and indeed to operate. Not to mention that it would have drawn a lot less attention to itself. As for keeping the returning vehicle out of the hands of opposition that's a matter of giving the platform sufficient delta V capability. Wings aren't going to to help you much if you're on a ballistic course for central China. Alternatively a few kilograms of strategically placed high explosive should do the job.
No, in the end, a spaceplane has one USP- the ability to bring arbitrary objects safely to earth from orbit. Now I'm not saying the USAF are about to go pinching Chinese satellites any time soon but I don't doubt that they would liketo have the capability to do so. And that scares me quite a bit, to be honest.
The only way to "hover" (ie. not move relative to the ground) is to be in geostationary orbit. And you can only be in geostationary orbit over the equator (or thereabouts, if you accept a wobble) - at an altitude of about 22,000 miles. I don't think there's any part of China on the equator.
It may well have been doing all sorts of slurping, but I guess it would have been on a different (probably lower) orbit, passing over points of interest, rather than hovering.
A way to get the effect of long dwell time over China is by using a Molniya orbit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molniya_orbit). That's a highly elliptical, highly inclined orbit with the apogee (furthest away from Earth, and hence slowest moving) in the northern hemisphere. Although the orbits the Russians use for their Molniya satellites have a six hour period, you could use a one day orbit to put the satellite consistently within sight of China for most of its orbital period.
Except it's a LEO, that kind of orbit is outside of what has been observed, the average orbit that has been followed is around 42 degrees inclination, which means it passes over the middle east quite often. but can also see to the poles at a shallow angle. My guess it's a got a nice camera on it, didn't the US military give away two mirrors for satellites a while back, think they found a better way to take pictures?