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Russia Working on Mysterious Space Plane of Its Own

February 5, 2011

It’s official: the space race is on again.

54 years after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik I satellite, sparking the original space race — and 20 years after the USSR’s collapse left America as the sole space superpower — the Russians are back on track. The Kremlin’s military space chief Oleg Ostapenko just announced that Russia is developing a small, maneuverable, reusable space plane to match the U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

Russian industry has already outlined the craft’s design, Ostapenko said. “As to whether we will use it, only time will tell,” he added coyly.

But it seems unlikely Russia would forgo the opportunity to match the U.S. Air Force’s accomplishment with the X-37B. That craft, a quarter-scale unmanned Space Shuttle first launched in April last year, represents one of the biggest leaps forward in space since, well, Sputnik.

 

The X-37 can carry anything that will fit in its pickup-truck-bed-size bay. “You can put sensors in there, satellites in there,” said Eric Sterner, from The Marshall Institute. “You could stick munitions in there, provided they exist.” The X-37 can also help repair U.S. satellites or sneak up on and disable enemy sats. Plus, it can stay in orbit for nine months, land like an airplane, then return to orbit just a few weeks later.

The initial X-37 test flight ended in December, flawlessly except for a blown tire. While “OTV 1″ is being prepped for its second flight late in 2011, its twin “OTV 2″ will boost into orbit on March 4, atop a rocket launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

It should come as no surprise that Russia wants its own “X-37ski.” With Sputnik, Moscow beat America into space. But with every major space capability since in recent decades, Washington has led its eastern rival. The U.S. fielded the manned Space Shuttle in 1981. Russia built its own, similar space vehicle, the Buran, but it flew only once, in 1988.

A decade later, America built the Global Positioning Satellite system, allowing precise navigation on Earth. Today, Russia is still struggling to construct its own version of GPS, the so-called “GLONASS.” The last attempt to reinforce the GLONASS constellation failed, when a rocket failed on launch in December, destroying three of the pricey satellites.

Not coincidentally, an X-37ski could help Russia put satellites like the GLONASS craft into orbit more reliably.

It’ll probably be a few years before the Russian X-37 clone takes flight. After all, this is super-cutting-edge technology. By then, the race for nimble military spacecraft could be a three-way competition. Just last week, there were rumors — highly, highly questionable ones — that China is working on an X-37-type vehicle, too.

 

About the X-37:

Transparency. Openness. International cooperation. These are some of the principles the United States should embrace in order to “safeguard U.S. satellites and protect space,” according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Problem is, one of America’s latest and greatest space gizmos runs afoul of those noble ideas. With its secretive X-37B “space plane,” the United States has been anything but transparent, open and cooperative.

The Air Force launched the 29-foot-long, Boeing-built X-37 in April. Now six months into a potential nine-month deployment, the X-37 periodically changes orbits, frustrating amateur satellite-spotters.

Similar to the Space Shuttle, only smaller and fully robotic, the highly maneuverable X-37 includes a payload bay that can accommodate, well, practically anything. “You can put sensors in there, satellites in there,” said Eric Sterner, from The Marshall Institute. “You could stick munitions in there, provided they exist.”

The X-37’s flexibility — “dual-use” is the technical term — itself could be a little alarming to other nations. Worse, the Air Force has declined to say exactly what X-37 is doing now and in the future. Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, was as vague as possible in describing the bot’s mission. “Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit. They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works.”

But it’s not science experiments that have other countries worried.

 

They’re concerned that the X-37 could be used to spy on or even “hijack” their own satellites, using “inspection” gear tucked in its payload bay.

Washington could get away with this sort of space espionage because no other government has the technology to comprehensively track the activities of other nations’ space vehicles. “When another state, say Russia or China, uses their dual-use technology, the U.S. has the ability to determine that that was not a hostile act,” said Brian Weeden, from the Secure World Foundation. “But when the U.S. does it, in most cases no one else has information to independently verify what’s going on. That creates a problem.”

To defuse the world’s alarm regarding the X-37, the United States should share space-tracking technology and data, Weeden said. That could result in a “verification regime” for space, similar to what the United States and Russia use to keep tabs on each other’s nuclear-armed bombers and missiles here on earth. “The tricky part, of course, is doing that while still protecting the pieces of that data that are essential to national security,” Weeden said. “It can be done, but it takes a fine balance.”

Despite promising to promote “responsible behavior in space,” the Obama administration’s actions, particularly with the X-37, have had the opposite effect. ”

Increasingly, insecurity about space activities and the motives behind them are creating friction among space-faring countries,” said Laura Grego, one of the UCS report’s authors. “If the Obama administration adopted our recommendations, it could help defuse these tensions and ensure a more secure future in space.”

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