December 28, 2010: Next Generation Spacecraft
Earlier this month, the X-37B landed after orbiting the Earth for 220 days. Haven't heard of this remarkable test flight? Don't worry -- many haven't.
The X-37B is the Air Force's solution to the retiring Space Shuttle fleet. In fact, this space vehicle looks like a miniaturized version of the traditional Shuttle -- just one quarter of the length of the Discovery. And since it's a military vehicle, the exterior dimensions are about all we know about it.
Actually, that's not true. We know (from a fact sheet "Secure World Foundation" put together) it uses a solar array and lithium ion batteries to produce its projected nine-month orbital endurance. The relatively low maximum orbit and lack of payload -- the X-37B has the storage space of a pickup truck -- likely rules out satellite repair missions. And the lack of human crew restricts the experimental options as well.
Yes, I said "lack of human crew." The X-37B is completely robotic. And sure, some will say that putting secret robot planes in space is perfectly safe. At least they're not armed with space lasers or anything . . . right?
(On the more serious side, I'd much prefer to put Buck Rogers into space instead of Twiki, but I'll take "unmanned space travel" over "no space travel.")
-- Paul Chapman
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