Credit: Boeing


The U.S. Air Force X-37B mini-space plane has winged past 340 days of flight performing secretive duties during the program’s fifth flight.

Labeled the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-5), the robotic craft was rocketed into Earth orbit on September 7, 2017 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Payload bay

On this latest clandestine mission of the space plane, all that’s known according to Air Force officials is that one payload flying on OTV-5 is the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, or ASETS-11. Developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), this cargo is testing experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes for long durations in the space environment.

Credit: Boeing

The X-37B space plane has a payload bay about the size of a pickup-truck bed, which can be outfitted with a robotic arm. X-37B has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit by gallium-arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.

Record setting history

Each X-37B/OTV mission has set a new flight-duration record for the program:

OTV-1 began April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

OTV-2 began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

OTV-3 chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit before finally coming down on Oct. 17, 2014.

OTV-4 conducted on-orbit experiments for 718 days during its mission, extending the total number of days spent in space for the OTV program to 2,085 days.

Last Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission touched down at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017.
Credit: Michael Martin/USAF

Tarmac touchdown

After eclipsing 11 months in orbit, how long the unpiloted, reusable craft will stay aloft is unknown. The robotic vehicle is likely to land at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility, as the OTV-4 mission did back on May 7, 2017. That was a first for the program. All prior missions had ended with a tarmac touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The classified X-37B program “fleet” consists of two known reusable vehicles, both of which were built by Boeing. Looking like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter, the military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, with a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m).

The first X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle waits in the encapsulation cell of the Evolved Expendable Launch vehicle on April 5, 2010 at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. Half of the Atlas V five-meter fairing is visible in the background.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

Ground tracks

Ted Molczan, a Toronto-based satellite analyst, told Inside Outer Space that OTV 5’s initial orbit was about 220 miles (355 kilometers) high, inclined 54.5 degrees to the equator. “Its ground track nearly repeated every two days, after 31 revolutions.”

On April 19, the space drone lowered its orbit by 24 miles (39 kilometers) which caused its ground track to exactly repeat every five days, after 78 revolutions, Molczan said – a first for an OTV mission.

“Repeating ground tracks are very common,” Molczan added, “especially for spacecraft that observe the Earth. That said, I do not know why OTV has repeating ground tracks.”

Space force 

Does the X-37B program fit into the Trump Administration’s call for a Space Force?

Responds Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island: “Ironically, the X-37B is exactly the type of program — toward giving the U.S. flexibility of operations in space — that seems to be prompting the current push for a Space Force, yet are already underway.”

3 Responses to “Military Space Plane Wings Toward Year in Earth Orbit (Updated)”

  • Bruce M Bibee says:

    Without resorting to science fiction constructs postulating FTL travel or ‘wormhole’ gates, this will be a generation ship where a sustainable population is carried and the society will be self contained. I envision a rather large ship in the form of a slightly fluted cylinder of nickel iron – actually a series of concentric
    counter-rotating cylinders about two hundred miles long and fifty layered cylinders ranging from one to fifty miles in diameter. Centripetal force will supply standard earth gravity. The interior surface of the cylinders is set up for farming while the exterior supplies light, video surveillance, and water to the next enclosed cylinder. The
    flutes are designed to have a gentle slope from a roadway at the top to a creek at the bottom – with adjacent creeks flowing in opposite directions. The road has an electric tram light rail system in the center and a road on both sides. Utilities, such as electrical power, fiber optic cable, a large diameter (one meter?) pneumatic tube delivery system, and water for the irrigation system are in the road bed. To conserve farmland, housing is constructed above the road – something like a tent on a light wood frame. Cooking, personal waste disposal and hygiene would be done on the ground with living quarters above. Each flute is about two miles – trough to trough – and the length of the road is partitioned into a series of 200 farms on each side of the road – each being roughly a square mile. Likely the progression would be to have vegetable farms closest to the cities and then orchards (also used as public parks) and possibly vineyards, and in the central section would be staple crops. The farms are small to maximize the number of family farms and keep the population occupied in performing productive work. In a closed environment the farms will be worked only with hand and animal labor and planned to provide an adequate range of food to allow for a diversified ecosystem.

    With 50 cylinders, one can pair them up – largest with smallest – and get 25 pairs whose summed diameter is 51 miles, multiply by pi to get the circumference and divide by two since the trough to trough arc is two miles. This yields about eighty roads per pair and multiplied by the 25 paired sets of cylinders, one gets 2,000 roads. Each road is two hundred miles long and there is a farm on each side, or 400 farms per road. This puts the number of farms at 800,000 or 800,000 square miles of productive farm land and at least 1,600,000 adult farmers – two in each farmhouse assuming only one adult generation in residence. A simple addressing system is used – two character cylinder; two character road; three character quad (a group of four farms); and one character farm. The city address follows the same format except the three character quad is used for individual street addressing and the one character farm designates which city (a convention using letters instead of numbers can designate cross streets in the cities for example). Instead of a single generation – a 25 year block – a mature society might have a multi-generational extended family on the farm. This might consist of
    children (1-25 years); parents (25-50 years); and maternal grandparents (50-75 years); with this last being a guideline as illness and/or disability might require shifting them to a retirement home in the city before age 75. Since only two children are allowed to a couple under normal circumstances, this would put six occupants on
    each farm. This would double the number of adults on the farms to 3,200,000 with potentially 1,600,000 children = 4,800,000. It would not be unreasonable to expect that each city might contain another 500,000 for a total population of around 6,000,000.

    There are several modes of transport depending on the need. Smallest would likely be a simple bicycle for individual transport along the road; at say, 20 mph an individual could cover the distance from a central quad to a city in five hours. For short haul along the road the pony cart would likely be used to shift several people and/or bulky items. The pneumatic tube delivery system has standard carriers of 1, 2, and 3 meters in length – this is the ambulance system as it can quickly move an injured person from the farm to a city hospital (the default destination) at high speed. This computer controlled system can also be used for rapid personal transport or small cargo items when not in use for emergency personnel transport. Each quad has a delivery portal and there are a number of portals in each city as well. The tram electric light rail system is used for routine scheduled transport of items and people and has a maximum speed of fifty miles per hour; but it seldom reaches this speed due to frequent stops for loading/unloading cargo and passengers. For city to city
    transport of cargo and passengers, the central rail gun can be operated at low power with the end gates closed creating a maglev type train.

    Since there is no real weather or seasons in the farming environment, the temperature is likely stable around 75F/20C and light is available 16 hours with two half hour transitions in and out of dark (low light) as people need about seven hours of sleep. With a light rain set for every three days (at ‘night’) the growing conditions are probably close to optimal and constant. Irrigation would be used as needed to supplement the light rain. Crops can then be planted in phased increments to reduce peak labor in the planting and harvesting activities. Each farm will likely have a small sturdy pony to assist with the plowing and transport; and may raise other common farm animals as well for meat and variety. To coordinate the required food production, usage is tracked and crops are ‘recommended’ through a central computer system; which also doubles as a banking system as
    there is no physical currency and electronic transactions are keyed to biometrics. This facilitates the direct distribution of food items between farms in a barter system with surpluses going to the cities – farms therefore get fresh produce on a regular basis with their surplus being taken away by the same tram that is delivering their share of food items from other farms. In a controlled environment there will be great care taken not to introduce animal or plant pathogens and to eliminate parasites as well. In addition, one would expect that the most common pests would also be eliminated – flies, mosquitoes, aphids, cockroaches, termites, ants, and other animals that cause large economic losses in food production and that may breed out of control. The balancing of a robust micro ecosystem will likely take a lot of time and effort – and likely constant monitoring and intervention. With most of the natural disasters removed, the most dangerous problem is likely to be fire. To control this, all sources of open flame will be controlled – cooking is likely to be done by induction, electric ovens, and microwave. Lighting is done through LEDs, and most communication and entertainment electronics is based on low voltage. Waste disposal will be through the use of composting toilets as the water cycle is contained – with no pests, there will be no pesticides and everything used will be a natural product that can
    go back into a relatively small environment and do no harm. With no termites or other wood boring (eating) animals, the wood used for housing and furniture should last for long periods of time, indeed, the problem
    may be the need to get rid of the buildup of small wood and related waste – strictly controlled fires might be a way to do this if CO2 and H2O need to be released from plant material; perhaps as part of some kind of ‘religious’ observance or communal celebration.

    The center of the cylinder is a large diameter rail gun used for launching probes forward and colony expeditions backward. There will be two cities, one at each end of the cylinder and will be hemispherical – Solward City at the rear and Outward City at the front. Solward City will be behind a large parabolic mirror used as both a communications link and light sail. Outward City will be behind a large shallow funnel that will collect cosmic dust and other stuff to keep it from eroding the forward part of the ship. A standard design will be used that can be automated in most of the construction and maintenance – likely constructed near the orbit of Mercury which
    will be torn up for the materials and the proximity of the Sun used to provide all required power. The outer surface of the largest cylinder would be used for storage – especially of heavy metals that one might
    not want in the inside ecosystems; and an automated assembly and storage of colony ships. Each ship will have a dedicated power station that remains in close solar orbit using very large lasers to sustain a small acceleration over a prolonged period of time – and communication when the distance precludes propulsion. Long term, ship power will be provided by modular thorium molten salt fission reactors distributed on the outer hull – relatively few would be needed to supply standard power during cruise mode but additional power would be needed to power the large central rail gun. In addition, the initial solar system departure speed will utilize a redundant outward spiral using the gravitational attraction of the Sun and large planets (slingshot) to build initial velocity to relatively high levels over some decades if not a century or so. These ships will not return to the solar system in the short term, but perhaps over the course of some thousands of years the course could loop back for a final flyby. The problem is velocity since the course to each star system will add velocity as the ship falls through the system and is further accelerated as the colony ships are fired by the rail gun while passing through the system to adjust their velocity as needed to reach and establish orbits at their planned destinations – also used to make course corrections to the next system. Each colony expedition is left in possession of a new solar system to inhabit and the population in the mother ship is rebuilt over the centuries in preparation for the next system exploration. Sophisticated robotic industrial ‘seed’ stations will be put into a target system on approach and build habitat for the prospective colonists, build a new laser propulsion station for the existing ship, and begin work on a new generation ship. By the time enough systems have been visited to loop back to the Sol system, the ship will likely have too much velocity to stop and may not be able to drop a colony expedition. After thousands to tens of thousands of years, it is possible that human life in the Sol system would bear little resemblance to any society from the time of departure (assuming that any humans still exist). Note that these ships may initially have long service within the solar system as exo-planet habitats to test the viability of their long term use and develop stable ecosystems. As the number of ships (habitats) increase, the central rail gun could be used at low acceleration for transport between ships.

    Over these time frames, what kind of society would be likely to last and maintain a functioning mission capable colonizing force? Three possibilities come to mind: 1) an agrarian based matriarchal feudal society moderated by basic rules in stored memory might have the best shot; 2) a democratic system based on merit examination qualifier exams, competition, and voting might also be viable; and, 3) a civil service system with exams and practical competition could also be used with random selection breaking any ties. Population would have to be
    strictly controlled since resources are very constrained, and the society must be very conservative staying focused on the mission – likely enhanced by a sophisticated computer program that can assist with governance and prevent social, cultural, and linguistic drift. This can be accomplished by integrating education and ‘religion’ with the governance of the ship population. To keep the feudal system from becoming ossified, the selection of leaders would be based on merit competition between the daughters swearing fealty to a superior instead of birth order. By using a matriarchal basis, the descent of children, especially daughters, is known. Three classes of daughters would be equal in the competition for succeeding to the rank – daughters of the body (born daughters), daughters in fealty (women who have sworn fealty to a superior), and daughters in spirit (women
    selected because of personal affinity). This keeps the pool of applicants large enough to provide competition but not so large that it is unwieldy. Ecology is the religion and the priestesses will be the arbitrators of the application – religion will have control over farm, family, and charitable issues; they will also be the physicians
    for both physical and mental well being – and this branch would be open to males as well. Education will be a separate bureaucracy – especially the male boarding schools, and this will help keep the religious bureaucracy from having too much power. There are several layers of administration (quad, road) with each cylinder being locally controlled by elected councils and the two cities as well. The overall ship administration will be military and merit based in nature and command structure with its emphasis being on the mission of system exploration. There will also be a medical bureaucracy to provide for the well being of the populace (as above – perhaps the equivalent of nuns and monks). There is also a separate system of justice with the police powers exercised by the ship military, but the system of courts being independent of the police. Solward City will control communication with the Sol system and with any colonies that may be dispatched – it is likely that there will be a constant stream of scientific data coming from these sources, and a major function will be to provide for the preservation and dissemination of new knowledge. Outward City will study and collect information on the target systems and prepare that information for dissemination to the ship’s crew and to past systems. Divided responsibility should keep lively debate ongoing as each group attempts to protect its turf and prestige.

    Cities have the ship crew, government, hospitals, universities, research facilities, industrial production, commercial activities, old age retirement facilities, and other such institutions. They also host road and cylinder levels of government in addition to city and ship governance. With a substantial population, there are many needs for specialist occupations. Some examples might include basic requirements such as taking trees raised for wood construction into an industrial facility that processes the trees into a variety of lumber products. These lumber products might then be used by other facilities to store and distribute such products for use in building; or facilities which use the lumber to make items such as furniture, toys, and other useful items; and retail facilities might be set up to make it easy for end users to purchase such items. Another such stream might be to turn plants raised for fiber into cloth and rope; and other commercial facilities might design and produce cloth products such as clothing, linens, tarps, and such; and retail facilities for these items as well. Leather might have a similar logistics chain. Other industrial facilities might use plant or animal feedstocks (since there is no
    petroleum carried) to make plastics that would feed 3D printers to produce a variety of items – and a recycle operation to dispose of broken and/or discarded items. Likely there would need to be a sophisticated industrial chain to produce electric and electronic goods; and a software industry to develop and maintain a range of
    items from outfitting colony ships to consumer electronics.

    The cylinders are fluted with a road along the high point and a river in the troughs. The flutes will be as uniform as possible giving equal areas for farms that run from the road to the river. The farms will be in blocks – quads – with a farm on each side of the road and two farm pairs next to each other. No family may own more than a single quad. The ownership of the farm passes down through the female line from mother to daughter (based on contests to determine the fittest between the three kinds of daughters) and a farm may not be subdivided,
    although they may be rented, leased, or sold. The main job of a female head of household is to manage the farm, and to accomplish this she may hire additional help but usually can get by with family assistance. The farms are organic low technology units which require both human labor and animal assistance to be productive. The central farms in the cylinder are primarily used for raising animal feed, timber, or fiber, flanking them are farms which raise staple crops, and flanking them are farms which produce permanent crops such as
    vines and orchards (including trees raised primarily for wood), and closest to the cities are farms which raise vegetables. Certain quads, although owned by a female, are actually set up as boarding schools and run by men to educate male children beginning at age five. Their education is focused on ecology, stewardship of the land, farming, animal husbandry, carpentry, transport, and other specialist jobs which require strength. They are allowed to compete for professional jobs, but only if they are top performers as girls are groomed for
    these jobs from an earlier age – especially administration, law, medicine, mathematics, science, technology, and of course, religion.

    The ship’s crew (and colony ships) is initially staffed entirely by pregnant women (with female fetuses) to provide the most personnel in the smallest group (and it will also insure complete control over the education and values of the ship’s male population). This is required to keep all of the alpha male dominance mythology under control and eventually lead to a budo service behavior for men who are given military training. It is anticipated that this will require a larger than normal female population for the initial functioning of the ship,
    but through subsequent rounds of child bearing, the following generations will go back to the normal split of roughlyb half female. The second round of child bearing will obtained using artificial insemination – all women will be expected (required – subtlety, with land ownership requiring motherhood, and advancement in the
    professions also requiring motherhood, and perhaps political candidates) to have two children with subsequent childbearing granted by special circumstance – typically as a reward for excellence. When the population stabilizes for interstellar cruise mode, normal methods of insemination will typically be used although the best will have eggs or sperm stored for later use along with a complete personal history (and birth cord preservation will be done as normal procedure). It can be expected that everyone will have a complete DNA profile – and everyone will be in the ship database which has an application for their mobile communication device which will check for any contraindications to sexual activity when they meet (too closely related, genes which may cause problems, and etc.). In general, men will look for mates in the next cylinder up while women typically
    remain in their birth cylinder – men in cylinder 50 look for mates in the lowest group of cylinders that have an equivalent population. When the ship nears a new system, the population will need to be ramped up
    to plant a substantial colony (50K? – 100 ships of 500), and the rebuilding of the colony fleet would take place as the population is scaled back for another period of interstellar cruise.

    Even with good values education, advanced surveillance, and jobs for all – there is likely to be some level of criminal behavior. In a relatively small community with limited resources, it is unlikely that using imprisonment as a punishment is an effective idea. Indeed, in modern societies the criminal justice system is a disaster where the system produces better criminals while trying to ‘punish’ them and modify their behavior. Some aspects of a modern criminal justice system could be kept – the assumption of innocence for example; a trial by jury; and effective representation in the court system. What should be changed is the procedural processes which enable a criminal to learn to be a better criminal. During the trial, the defendant would be allowed to listen to and assist their advocate in challenging any testimony about said defendant – but would not be privy to the
    detailed explanations that accompany forensic or expert testimony relating to the defendant’s activities when such testimony is given to the jury and explained. This will hopefully keep them from learning how to avoid these mistakes in the future – nor will the advocate educate their client in these technical matters, although they can challenge such evidence on behalf of their client. Punishment will not consist of incarceration but in the removal of body parts that will lessen the effectiveness of the criminal in any future criminal attempts. This has a basis in Sharia Law where public punishment and removal of body parts seems standard. For minor infractions, a system of ‘caning’ might be used following the ‘rule of thumb’ to insure no disabling or permanent damage is inflicted with the pain and humiliation that punishes the person. More serious or continued
    behavior can result in the removal of the small ‘pinky’ finger for crimes of theft and of the small toe for crimes that involve fleeing. More serious crimes would involve the removal of the thumb (not the hand as done in Sharia) or the large toe. These would likely involve the threat of infliction of injury. Sexual offenses would likely be punished by physical castration, especially where rape and child molestation are concerned (and with less testosterone in the system, this might also effect a cure in many cases). These surgical procedures would punish the offender, let others know that they are dealing with an offender, and degrade the offender’s ability to repeat or continue effective criminal activity. This also provides several chances for the offender to stop this behavior – caning, loss of fingers and toes provide multiple opportunities to stop the offending behavior. Ultimately, should this regime fail to stop criminal behavior, the offender can be put to death by harvesting any useful organs where the donor does not come out of the anesthetic alive. Eliminating prison also reduces the opportunity for new or novice criminals to learn from the experience of older inmates who likely talk about their exploits and how they got caught. Since the base community is a small closed community, imprisonment is really not that much different than being on the ship and would be a drain on the ship’s resources for minimal gain.

    Note that there are no weapons on the ship (although complete specifications might be available in encrypted files in a secure database). Law enforcement personnel might be equipped with Taser and/or stun devices, and likely simple weapons such as batons and/or bolas; but neither the personnel nor ship will have lethal weapons available. This does not mean that there are no weapons as weapons can easily be improvised from a variety of tools – likely the most common being sticks or staffs and the knife or machete; less common would be larger weapons like an axe. It is likely that a system of mixed martial arts might be well known, especially for women to offset the greater physical strength of men.

  • Carol Lever says:

    Intelligence is all about head space in thought that just keeps increasing as knowledge grows, is shared, and discovered, as in each other:)

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