By David Ord
…… the X37B is back on station for another magical mystery tour of duty.
Yes, we can all breathe a composite sigh of relief and siesta well in the knowledge that we are now safer than ever with the X37B spy plane back in orbit to watch over us.
The X37B is an unmanned drone that carries out “material testing etc” on behalf of its owners the United States Air Force. The Boeing built spacecraft is a miniature (about quarter size) version of the Shuttle and this is its fourth mission to date, having spent some 600 days in orbit on its last ‘testing’ mission.
Known as Orbital Test Vehicle mission No. 4, (OTV4) the craft was boosted into low-Earth orbit by a two-stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket that lifted off on May 20th at 11:05 a.m. EDT (15:05 GMT) from Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Boeing has built two X37B spacecraft which can be deployed as a rapid response surveillance resource. From knowledge of its orbital characteristics, much on-line chatter is engendered regarding its real objectives. It must be a little infuriating to USAF to find that the exact location of the X37B is published daily on the internet.
Although the Air Force revealed two experiments to be conducted on this mission; an electric propulsion thruster test and materials exposure in the space environment; much was classified about the flight, including the orbit, mission duration and even which of the two X-37B space-planes is making the trip.
Indeed, the simple question of which of the X37Bs had been launched was met with the response; “No, that information is not releasable due to operational objectives,” from Air Force spokesman Capt. Chris Hoyler.
The ascent even entered a news blackout about five minutes after liftoff, as the upper stage began its burn to put the space-plane into its targeted, secret low-Earth orbit.
It did not take long for the amateur observers to track the craft and determine its orbit as 312 x 325 km, tilted 38 degrees relative to the equator. This is the lowest orbit of any of the missions to date and the fact that the ground track nearly repeats every 2 days indicates a specific surveillance mission in the Northern hemisphere. What could be going on there that would interest USAF?
“It’s really for cool things. For instance, it goes up to space but, unlike other satellites, it actually comes back. Anything that we put in the payload bay that we take up to space, we can now bring back, and we can learn from that,” Gen. John Hyten, the head of Space Command, told CBS News on its “60 Minutes” program last month. Hmm, nice try but not even close.
The Atlas launch by ULA was in many ways unremarkable; like so many others recently. Actually, this was the 21st consecutive Atlas launch which had left on a single countdown; no delays, no last minute errors flagged, just light the blue touch paper, 3-2-1 and gone. This is a very impressive performance by ULA, who are coming under some serious competitive pressure from both SpaceX and Orbital Services for the military launch business.
In its 54 missions since debuting in August 2002, the Atlas 5 has flown 20 flights dedicated to the Defence Department, 12 for NASA, 11 with spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office and 11 commercial missions with communications and Earth-observing spacecraft.
The launch had the codename Air Force Space Command 5, or AFSPC 5, and flew aboard the rocket with a tail number AV-054.
The flawless launch was also a tribute to an essential component of this variation of the Atlas rocket – the soon to be as rare as a ‘hen’s teeth’, Russian RD-180 engine. It was the Russian engine’s 60th consecutive, perfect flight powering the Atlas with 860,000 pounds of thrust and all the power for the first four-and-a-half minutes of flight.
By way of a reminder, the Americans are very reliant upon the Russian RD-180 engine to launch military and spy satellites. But, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the US Congress placed an embargo on purchasing any more RD-180 engines for use in American military launches. 5 engines which were already in production were exempted from the ban.
Unfortunately, the US military satellite program for surveillance, GPS, and battlefield communications called for 14 launches through to 2020. There will not be an alternative American engine available until at least 2022. So, Houston or more specifically Washington – we have a problem.
As good as the ULA Atlas 5 launch system is for military hardware, it is already 50% more expensive than that proposed by commercial competitors such as SpaceX and Orbital Services. The latter has an order for 60 RD-180 engines for commercial launches, including cargo to the ISS for NASA, but they are subject to the same ban on military launches as ULA.
SpaceX has just been certified as suitable for military launches and have made a bid for some of the contracts. Unfortunately, their launch record is not as reliable as ULA and having been bitten by the RD-180 episode, the US military is rather shy of moving from one monopoly supplier to another. And anyway, the last SpaceX rocket ended up performing an RUD – Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly – or put another way, it blew up. Not what the military wants to hear when they describe their payload as ‘irreplaceable and of the utmost importance to national security’.
At the moment, Congress does not appear to want to show any weakness in the ‘sanctions against Russia’ strategy. So, despite calls from USAF to modify the RD-180 sanctions, there is little political support. The engine sanctions and the removal of Visa card facilities from associates of Mr. Putin are about all they have to affect a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. It may take a while to bite.
Ironically, both NASA, which is a civilian entity, and Orbital Services, a commercial satellite launcher, can import as many RD-180 engines from Russia as they wish. This is very much welcomed by Mr. Putin and his group of friends.
For months, a powerful U.S. senator has been pushing for details of a murky deal under which the Russian manufacturer supplies the RD-180 rocket engines to the USA. At issue: how much the U.S. Air Force pays for the engines, how much the Russians receive, and whether members of the elite in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia are secretly profiting by inflating the price.
Now, documents uncovered by Reuters provide some answers. A tiny Florida-based company, acting as a middleman in the deal, is marking up the price by millions of dollars per engine. That five-person company, RD Amross, is a joint venture of Russian engine maker NPO Energomash and a U.S. partner, aerospace giant United Technologies. According to internal company documents that lay out the contract, “Amross stands to collect $93 million in cost mark-ups under its current deal to supply the RD-180 rocket engine.”
Well, at least they will not be able to spend their ill gotten gains on the internet using VISA card facilities!
To observe the X37B, (referred to as OTV4) see http://www.heavens-above.com .
To buy an RD-180 go to RD Amross at http://rdamross.com/. You might expect a better website from a $100 million outfit – see what you think.