X-37B Spaceplane To Test Power Beaming Technology

Since 2010, the United States military has been operating a pair of small reusable spaceplanes that conduct secretive long-duration flights in low Earth orbit. Now officially operating under the auspices of the newly formed Space Force, the X-37Bs allow the military to conduct in-house research on new hardware and technology with limited involvement from outside agencies. The spaceplane still needs to hitch a ride to space on a commercial rocket like the Atlas V or the Falcon 9, but once it’s separated from the booster, the remainder of the X-37B’s mission is a military affair.

An X-37B being prepared for launch.

So naturally, there’s a lot we don’t know about the USSF-7 mission that launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 17th. The duration of the mission and a complete manifest of the experiments aboard are classified, so nobody outside the Department of Defense truly knows what the robotic spacecraft is up to. But from previous missions we know the craft will likely remain in orbit for a minimum of two years, and there’s enough public information to piece together at least some of the investigations it will be conducting.

Certainly one the most interesting among them is an experiment from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) that will study converting solar power into a narrow microwave beam; a concept that has long been considered the key to unlocking the nearly unlimited energy potential offered by an orbital solar array. Even on a smaller scale, a safe and reliable way to transmit power over the air would have many possible applications. For example it could be used to keep unmanned aerial vehicles airborne indefinitely, or provide additional power for electric aircraft as they take-off.

Performing an orbital test of this technology is a serious commitment, and shows that all involved parties must have a fairly high confidence level in the hardware. Unfortunately, there isn’t much public information available about the power beaming experiment currently aboard the X-37B. There’s not even an indication of when it will be performed, much less when we should expect to see any kind of report on how it went. But we can make some educated guesses based on the work that the Naval Research Laboratory has already done in this field.

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France Questions Russian Satellite With “Big Ears”

French Defense Minister Florence Parly took a page out of Little Red Riding Hood when she recently called out a Russian satellite for having “big ears”. While she stopped short of giving any concrete details, it was a rare and not terribly veiled accusation that Russia is using their Luch-Olymp spacecraft to perform orbital espionage.

Luch satellite conceptual drawing from NASA

At a speech in Toulouse, Parly was quoted as saying: “It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications.” and “this little Stars Wars didn’t happen a long time ago in a galaxy far away. It happened a year ago, 36,000 kilometers above our heads.”

The target of this potential act of space piracy is the Athena-Fidus satellite, a joint venture between France and Italy to provide secure communication for the military and emergency services of both countries. Launched in 2014, it provides 3 Gbit/s throughput via the Ka-band for mobile receivers on the ground and in drones.

This isn’t the first time Russia’s Luch class of vehicles has been the subject of scrutiny. In 2015 it was reported that one such craft maneuvered to within 10 kilometers of the Intelsat 7 and Intelsat 901 geostationary communications satellites, prompting classified meetings at the United States Defense Department. As geostationary satellites orbit the Earth at 3.07 km/s, a 10 km approach is exceptionally dangerous. Even a slight miscalculation could cause an impact within seconds.

Could Stealth Satellites Be In Our Future?

Much to the chagrin of shadowy spy agencies everywhere, this sort of orbital cat and mouse is easily detectable from the ground. When spy planes became easy to detect using radar, the next step was to evade that detection. Are we on a path to satellites that are transparent to radar?

Gregory Charvat, author of Small and Short-Range Radar Systems and occasional contributor here at Hackaday, tells us that building a stealth satellite is no easy task. “Just like how we had to re-invent the aircraft to make the first stealth aircraft, to make a stealth satellite one would have to fundamentally re-invent the satellite as we know it today.”

Likening it to the immense cost and effort it took to develop stealth aircraft like the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, Gregory says developing a satellite which could hide from radar would likely be more trouble than it’s worth for most applications. Space is already hard enough. “Maintaining that special shape that reflects radar away from your aircraft and including all of these essential peripherals is a big challenge” Gregory says, which results in “compromise and high maintenance costs.”

Beyond attempting to eavesdrop on communications, military insiders say that these close passes by Luch satellites could also be “dry-runs” for anti-satellite operations; either by using a directed energy weapon to disable the target spacecraft, or simply running into it. With events like these, and the commitment by the United States to establish a Space Force in the coming years, efforts to militarize space seem to be on the rise.

[via DefenseNews]