Posts Tagged ‘Spaceplanes’

Secret American Spaceplane Returns to Earth

October 31, 2019

The Americans do have a secret space programme using the X-37B spaceplane. I very much doubt it involves anything as exotic as contact with extraterrestrials or uses back engineered alien technology. However, while the Americans have admitted the existence of the craft, they won’t reveal just what it’s doing up in the Deep Black. Yesterday, 30th October 2019, the I reported that the plane had returned to Earth after a record-breaking mission. The article by Marcia Dunn, ‘Secret space plane finishes 780-day mission’, ran

The US Air Force’s mystery space plane is back on Earth, following a record-breaking two-year mission.

The X-37B landed at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida early on Sunday. The craft looks like a space shuttle – but is a quarter of the size, at just 29ft (8.8m) long.

The US Air Force is quiet about what the plane did after launching aboard a SpaceX rocket in 2017. The 780-day mission sets a new record for the reusable test vehicle.

Tight-lipped officials will say only that the mission successfully completed its objectives and that experiments from the Air Force Research Laboratory were aboard. It was the fifth spaceflight by a vehicle of this kind.

Barbara Barrett, the US Air Force Secretary, said: “Each mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.

Although the exact nature of X-37B missions are classified, air force officials have dropped hints about the type of experiments.

One was the launch of an advanced structurally embedded thermal spreader, an experiment designed to “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies”, according to an air force statement.

The plane flew to a higher orbit than previous X-37B flights, suggesting it had new experiments or technology tests. Air force officials said it carried multiple experiments and smaller satellites into orbit.

My guess is that some of those are almost certainly spy satellites.

A few years ago the X-37B docked at the International Space Station, but the US wouldn’t say what it was doing up there either.

JBIS Article on the Skylon British Spaceplane

October 9, 2018

In my last article, I discussed the forthcoming edition of the Beeb’s long-running space and astronomy programme, the Sky at Night, on the history of Britain in space. The programme will be presented by Tim Peake, and the blurb about it this week’s Radio Times looks forward to the opening of Britain’s first spaceport in Scotland within the next few years. The Radio Times doesn’t mention it, but recent newspaper articles have stated that such a spaceport will be built sometime in the very near future for launching the Skylon spaceplane. This is an unmanned vehicle, which has been developed as the successor to the 1980s HOTOL spaceplane.

Two of the scientists and engineers involved in the project, Richard Varvill and Alan Bond, published an article describing the plane in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vol. 57, no. 1/ 2, for January/February 2004. The JBIS is the technical magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, founded in the 1930s to encourage British research into rocketry and space travel. The article runs from p.22 to p.32. The article itself is too long to reproduce, but its abstract runs as follows:

SKYLON is a single stage to orbit (SSTO) winged spaceplane designed to give routine low cost access to space. At a gross takeoff weight of 275 tonnes of which 2202 tonnes is propellant the vehicle is capable of placing 12 tonnes into an equatorial low Earth orbit. The vehicle configuration consists of a slender fuselage containing the propellant tankage and payload bay with delta wings located midway along the fuselage carrying the SABRE engines in axisymmetric nacelles on the wingtips. The vehicle takes off and lands horizontally on its own undercarriage. The fuselage is constructed as a multilayer structure consisting of aeroshell, insulation, structure and tankage. SKYLON employs extant or near term materials technology in order to minimize development cost and risk. The SABRE engines have a dual mode capability. In rocket mode the engine operates as a closed cycle liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen high specific impulse rocket engine. In airbreathing mode (from takeoff to Mach 5) the liquid oxygen flow is replaced by atmospheric air, increasing the installed specific impulse 3-6 fold. The airflow is drawn into the engine via a 2 shock axisymmetric intake and cooled to cryogenic temperatures prior to compression. The hydrogen fuel flow acts as a heat sink for the closed cycle helium loop before entering the main combustion chamber. (p. 22).

Schematic of the SKYLON spaceplane in the above article.

I’m delighted that the spaceplane is now set to enter service and look forward to the opening of the new spaceport in Scotland.

Al-Jazeera on the First Test Flight of India’s Space Shuttle

September 19, 2018

In this short clip, just over two minutes long, from Al-Jazeera, posted two years ago in 2016, Tariq Bezley reports on the first test flight by the Indian Space Agency of their space shuttle. The shuttle was launched into space on top of a rocket fired from India’s launch facility north of Chenai. The craft separated from the rocket at an altitude of 70 km and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, which heated it up to 2,000 degrees.

A female scientist speaking for the Observer Research Foundation, Rajeswari P Rajagopalan talks on the video about how it was necessary to test the shuttle’s heat shield.

Besley states that so far only the US, USSR, Japan and Europe have launched reusable shuttles. He states that NASA’s Space Shuttle flew 135 missions in 30 years before it was finally decommissioned. It has been replaced by the US air forces X-37B test vehicle. This unmanned vehicle was on its third mission, and had been up there for a year. However, the secrecy surrounding its missions have provoked speculation that it is a spy satellite, or is being tested to deliver weapons from space.

He then goes on to discuss the Dreamchaser, the spaceplane being developed by the private Sierra Nevada firm to service the International Space Station. Its first flight is planned for 2019. India’s space shuttle is in a much earlier stage of development, and it’s estimated that it’ll be 10 or 15 years before it is ready to fly.

Besley also discusses how India successfully put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2014, becoming the first Asian nation to do so.

Rajagopan states that China has flourishing military space programme, which is a direct challenge to India, and India has to respond if it is not to be left lagging behind.

Further tests will be carried out on the Indian spacecraft, including on the supersonic scramjet engine which the Indians hope will one day power the spaceplane. The Indians say that their Mars mission cost a tenth of that of other missions to the Red Planet. Besley concludes that if their space shuttle can achieve the same savings, space travel will become much more affordable for all.

A number of countries have developed plans for different spaceplanes. The Russians had their own version of the Space Shuttle, Buran, which looked exactly like the American. It has been mothballed since the Fall of the USSR and has never flown. The French designed a small spaceplane, Hermes, which was to go on top of their Ariane rocket in the 1990s. This was very much like the American Dynosoar spaceplane proposed in the 1950s, but never actually built. The Germans also designed a spaceplane, Sanger, named after one of their leading rocket scientists. This would consist of two craft, a larger plane acting as a first stage, which would piggy-back a second plane into orbit.
And then there was the British HOTOL project of the 1980s which also used airbreathing ramjet engines to take the plane into space. This was never completed because of problems with those same engines. The technology has since been perfected, and a new British spaceplane, Skylon, has been developed. It has been forecast that it will come into service sometime in the next few years, possibly flying from spaceport launch sites in Cornwall or Scotland.

The video shows how sophisticated India’s space programme is, and I’ve no doubt that their entry into space will lower launch costs significantly. While the American shuttle was an amazing piece of engineering, it was massively expensive. It only became competitive as a launch vehicle against Ariane and the other rockets because it was heavily subsidized by the American government.

I look forward to the development of India’s spaceplane and that country joining the US and Russia in launching manned space missions. Perhaps if more countries develop reusable spacecraft, humanity will at last enter a real age of crewed space exploration and colonization.

Paintings of British Spaceplane MUSTARD

December 28, 2017

This is awesome. It’s another couple of piccies from the SF art page, 70sscifiart, and it’s one of the entries for the 18th June 2017. They’re illustrations from a book on space about the MUSTARD spaceplane, a reusable space vehicle designed in 1964 by the British Aerospace Corporation. The scientists and engineers, who designed it realised that it was wasteful and expensive to build rockets that would last only for a single mission, before being mostly discarded.

Their solution, MUSTARD, effectively consists of three spaceplanes linked together. There’s the main craft, which flies into space, and two supporting planes, which serve to provide fuel to the main craft, helping it reach orbital velocity. When their fuel was used up, they broke away from the main plane, and flew back to Earth.

I first came across the MUSTARD project in an issue of the space/ science fiction magazine New Voyager back in the early 80s. This described the project, and interviewed some of the scientists and engineers involved. I think the problem with it is that it was probably far too far ahead of its time. I can remember reading that they estimated that the vehicle would start breaking even after 50 journeys. Now, looking at the economics of the space shuttle, that’s probably acceptable today. The only way the Space Shuttle remained competitive compared to the other launch vehicles developed by the Russians, the Europeans, India, China and Japan is because its subsidized by the American government. If you left it to market forces, it’d be uncompetitive. It’s another example of the way market forces are absolutely wonderful, but only so long as they don’t hurt big business and the ‘national interest’.

There were also probably political reasons for its cancellation as well. Britain at the time was also developing its own space rocket, Black Arrow, which successfully launched a satellite into space in 1975, to date the only British satellite that’s been launched by a British rocket. At the time Britain was involved in a European project to build a space rocket, with various stages built by the French, British and Germans. All of the other stages were failures with the exception of the British, and the project eventually fell apart. The civil servants in charge of British space research did not feel that there was a sufficient market to support an independent British rocket launcher, and instead decided that we’d piggy-back on the Americans.

The French, on the other hand, persevered, and developed their massive successful Ariane rocket, which is actually much more economical and performs better than the US space shuttle did. Which shows how farsighted the French can be when it comes to developing new technologies. Unlike our politicos, who seem to want to get everything cheap from someone else.

Tragically, the space shuttle was beset with problems, which resulted in a series of horrific catastrophes. The best known of these is probably the Challenger disaster, which led to the programme being suspended for years while the Shuttle was being examined and redesigned. Then there was that terrible incident a few years ago where the Shuttle exploded just when it was re-entering the atmosphere, breaking up over the US. This has led to the Shuttle being cancelled, and America reliant for manned spaceflight on the Russians.

I don’t doubt that the design for MUSTARD was sound, and it would have been way ahead of the other competing spacecraft if it had been built. Unfortunately, economics, politics and the will to do it weren’t there.