What is the Air Force doing with space?

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
May 24 2010 7:30 AM

What is the Air Force doing with space?

The military uses for space travel are legion: besides the obvious utility of being able to launch weapons much more quickly at a target, it can be used to prevent military action through advanced intelligence gathering.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

X-37_uprightThe Air Force has long been in the vanguard of space based operations, but of course much of that is secret (and rightly so). I had heard of the X-37 B -- aka the Flying Twinkie -- for some time, but since there was so little info on it I didn't write anything. But interestingly, through Slashdot I learned that amateur satellite spotters have seen the X-37 B from the ground. Not many people know you can spot all sorts of satellites from your front yard; all you need in most cases is knowledge of your latitude and longitude and a website with satellite listings.


Info about the X-37 B is relatively tight, so it's unclear what it's being tested for. Surveillance is assured, since any satellite can be used for that. The Air Force says it has no offensive capabilities -- I wonder if they mean the test shot launched last month, or the X-37 B itself -- but it does have a payload capability for small satellites, and can be operated in orbit for at least 9 months. Its orbit takes it from -40° to +40° latitude. Go look at a globe and see what countries lie in that range that might be of interest to the military... airforce_scramjetAlso of interest is that the Air Force is planning a test launch of a hypersonic scramjet called the X-51A, an aircraft capable of flight at speeds of at least Mach 6 -- about 7000 kph! That launch may happen as soon as May 25. Scramjets are fiercely complex technologically; while technically rockets, they use oxygen from the air instead of carrying it on board. This saves a lot of mass, and has a huge range of uses; military of course, but also civilian uses for aircraft.

I saw an early version of a scramjet a few years ago, and was awed by it; Mach 6 is fast, and these things have an upper speed that may exceed that by quite a bit. When this tech tests out, it may revolutionize the whole world. Imagine getting from the US to Japan in an hour, or basically from any point in the world to any other point in just a few of hours! In a hundred years, statements like that may seem quaint, but for now, it's the future.

Some people may knee-jerk and think the military will abuse this tech, but I understand that developing and using this sort of thing can help prevent conflicts... and may lead to a revolution as profound as the invention of the car, the airplane, and the spaceship. I hope the military can get all this working. I still have hopes that the near future will look like the one I read about when I was a kid.

X-37 B image credit: U.S. Air Force. Scramjet: Wikipedia, under the Creative Commons license.