X-37: The Spy Shuttle

Something curious happened earlier this month: the National Reconnaissance Office donated two perfectly-good satellite frames to NASA.  They’re still sitting on the ground and they have no instruments, but apparently our spy satellite agency has no forseeable need for them.  Not that the NRO cares, but NASA has neither the need for them nor the budget to do anything with them.  They’re probably going to sit around in a NASA warehouse for a good long time.  Why doesn’t the NRO just keep them around and then fit them with instruments and launch them as budgets permit or circumstances necessitate?

Now, I’m no spook and I have no insider knowledge but I believe the answer lies in the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.  This is the unmanned mini-shuttle that’s currently in orbit on a year-long test mission, and is scheduled to return this month.  Insofar as we can tell – not that anyone’s talking – the program seems to have been a success.

Current spy satellite design has some inherent drawbacks.  Once launched, they will hopefully serve for a decade or more, which is a bit of a mixed blessing.  The longer they continue to operate the older and more outdated their instrument set becomes.  Instrument performance tends to degrade, and the technology remains a relic of the age in which it was designed.  A satellite which has served for a dozen years probably has instruments that are fifteen years old, based on technology which is perhaps twenty years out of date.

Servicing missions were never practical; now that the shuttle fleet has been retired a servicing mission is entirely out of the question.  What the NRO is doing amounts to a paradigm shift: they’re going to build a mini-fleet of mini-shuttles, which can be fitted with a current-generation sensor payload and launched virtually on-demand.  They’ll probably keep a handful up at all times, scheduled to come down after a year or so to be repaired, refueled, and upgraded.

There’s been a lot of people doing head-scratching and fearmongering over the X-37 program.  Granted, it might have some uses as a weapons platform, but I believe the real advantages are in surveillance and espionage.  IMHO, the X-37 is the test vehicle for a new generation of spy satellites, which will enable us to cycle out old technology for new on a comparatively rapid basis, while extending the lifetime of the platform itself by enabling us to repair and refuel it on each mission cycle.

Update: Some interesting, related thoughts from “George Smiley” over at “In From the Cold”.

2 responses to “X-37: The Spy Shuttle

  1. If you are correct (and your formulation is VERY compellingly plausible), then this would be one of those head-slapping thingys (of the “well, DUH variety), an idea so intelligent and useful you genuinely wonder why it took so long to think of it! After all, the Shuttle had long-since proved out the basic concept, and the tech was there. And these birds could easily be equipped with an Orbital Maneuvering System (re-fuelable, since they can land the whole works), for far more flexible positioning, to boot.

    This is really smart.

    • I wonder how much fuel they carry. We’ve been able to drastically change the orbits of satellites which haven’t met their target altitude, for example, but it’s a gradual process that expends a lot of the fuel, and they only have that fuel because they’re expected to be in-orbit for many years. More nudging changes in orbit to target different groundspaces are commonplace but there’s a serious speed vs. distance tradeoff.

      Anyways, on an ongoing basis they can always take one of vehicles which has completed a maintenance cycle (refuel/repair/upgrade) and relaunch it in a completely different orbit. That would be useful for meeting the evolving needs of our skyspooks; back at the turn of the millennium as China waxed and Russia waned in importance this would have been useful, or perhaps for meeting pop-up threats like we had in Afghanistan, we could relaunch vehicles to meet those needs accordingly on a fairly timely basis. With a baker’s dozen or so we could relaunch on a monthly basis with entirely new sensor packages in completely different orbits from that which they were on prior to the end of their mission cycle. As a bonus, we’d also be reducing the amount of space debris by not leaving expired, defunct satellites in-orbit.

      I have doubts as to the efficacy of using the X-37-type as a weapons platform. For a ground attack it’s hard to beat an ICBM (30 minutes time-to-target), SLBM (20 minutes T2T), or cruise missile barrage (a few hours T2T). The X-37 would need to change orbit very quickly at high fuel expense to match that. The same would be true for an anti-satellite role, although regrettably we have discontinued our own ground-to-orbit ASAT program. A kinetic ASAT weapons payload seems utterly impractical unless it were very short-range, but I suppose a ranged-weapon like an onboard laser might make some sense.

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