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Space Plane could recover satellites before they fall

If you happened to read last week’s column, I mentioned the X-37B Space Plane.

This week, I will tell you more about this secret project. Of course, I can only tell you what the Air Force chooses to publicize.

The latest mission that I’ll mention is this interesting mission that they chose to publicize. It is an experiment designed by the United States Naval Research Laboratory to gather solar radiation far above the atmosphere where the satellite will be in the sun without the clouds to interfere.

The principal investigator is Paul Jaffe. His thesis for his Ph.D was about collecting solar radiation and converting it to microwaves for transmission. For the microwave power transmission, the clouds are not a problem.

Using solar cells to gather the power, they will attempt to send power back down to earth.
It is not a new idea, I remember when I was attending Toastmaster’s meetings some 30 years ago and a speaker described how to do this from a satellite.

This is the first attempt to do this from orbit. It would help out on the pollution problem and hopefully it will be practical and economically attractive.

Most of the information noted here was gleaned from the Space News site on the Internet. The X-37B missions, which started in April, 2010, have all been secretive except this last one, the sixth, which is in orbit presently. It orbits at 115–500 miles. It is lifted into orbit by either the Atlas V or the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The first three missions ended at Vandenberg Air Force base in California, but the last one landed at Kennedy Space Center airport next to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Air Force plans for all subsequent ones to land in Florida. These are long-term missions, the longest one was 718 days, just a little under two years.

There is an advantage in having no crew, it doesn’t require oxygen, food or other human needs and can stay up a long time.

The Space Plane is about one-fourth the size of the shuttle. It has a cargo bay similar to the Shuttle, except it is only the size of pickup truck bed.

The primary mission is thought to be a test bed for new sensors and other next generation satellites to find how they stand up in the space environments. It seems to be reasonable to think that it could be used to retrieve some of the smaller, defunct satellites to bring them back for repair.

It has been a concern of space-savvy engineers that with the many satellites in orbit there are bound to be collisions. With collisions, there will be clouds of debris to cause more problems.

There is a need to launch missions to sweep out the useless satellites by causing them to burn up in the atmosphere.
Better still would be an on-board retro rocket to slow a satellite down to make it fall out of orbit. All but the biggest ones would burn up in the atmosphere.

Don Lee, a pilot flying out of Lawrence County Airport since 1970, has been in charge of equipment and grounds maintenance for the last several years. He can be reached at eelnod22@gmail.com