So NASA's Space Shuttle has officially retired, leaving only the Air Force's two X-37Bs as the only reusable space planes in operation. Much speculation is occurring about what this means for the future of space travel. One thought; the two mystery shuttles may be ushering in a new age in space transport around the globe -- the era of the unmanned space shuttle.
Earlier this year, Russia revealed that it is working on a similar, unmanned space plane and India's space agency has, for some time, been known to be working on its own version (shown above) of the X-37B.
Apparently, the Indians have already built a tech demonstrator for their space plane that will be used, like the X-37B, as a reusable truck to carry payloads in and out of space. The initial version of the craft will apparently splash down into the ocean in a similar fashion as NASA's old Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules. However, once India masters "several elements" the spacecraft will lift-off with the help of rockets but land on a runway like an airplane .
Keep in mind that it was the Soviet Union, not the U.S. who first built and successfully flew an automated, unmanned, reusable space plane in 1988 when the Buran space shuttle flew to space, orbited the Earth and then landed at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Now, these small unmanned space planes craft may be able to bring the original dream of NASA's Space Shuttle to life. They're relatively inexpensive and lack the danger associated with human cargo. This means the craft could be mass produced and used to quickly shuttle all sorts of goods into space. As the X-37B has already proven, such craft can stay in space for months performing a host of (for now, secret) missions. The first X-37B flight lasted 220 days and amateur spotters noticed the craft switched orbital patterns numerous times during this extremely long spaceflight.
Just like UAVs are permanently changing air warfare, these robo-shuttles may be about to permanently change space operations.
One hint as to the role of U.S. Air Force's X-37Bs could have come recently from Gary Payton, the U.S. Air Force's undesecretary for space who told Flight Global that the service wants to be able to turn the little craft around in 10-to-15 days and operate them much more like the old SR-71 Blackbird spyplanes
If we were in a surge environment, where we were putting up a whole bunch of satellites over a month or two, I would like to see the X-37B handle much more like a [Lockheed] SR-71.The first part of that quote is pretty straightforward. The Air Force no doubt sees the robo shuttles as the embodiment of the space Shuttle's original promise; cheap, reusable spacecraft that make access to orbit a commodity.
The last part of his quote makes me wonder if the X-37B is the replacement for the SR-71 in terms of being an untouchable spy plane. It can stay aloft for a long time beyond the reach of any known weapons; it could plant a host of spy satellites on orbit; spy on other satellites; or use its ability to maneuver around the heavens to do its own spying if its equipped with the right cameras and radar equipment.
Then again, this is all speculation and I could be reading far too much into Payton's quote. It may just be a simple satellite truck meant to drop off and recovers classified spy sats and nothing more.
Here's a little more on India's space plane program -- the document from India's space agency discusses Indian officials' longstanding plans to eventually produce a craft that can take-off and land like a standard airplane. Before they can do this, they must build a rocket-launched craft similar to the one described above.