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jueves, 3 de febrero de 2011

Russia Working on Mysterious Space Plane of Its Own

It’s official: the space race is on again.

54 years after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik I satellite, sparking the original space race — and 20 years after the USSR’s collapse left America as the sole space superpower — the Russians are back on track. The Kremlin’s military space chief Oleg Ostapenko just announced that Russia is developing a small, maneuverable, reusable space plane to match the U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

Russian industry has already outlined the craft’s design, Ostapenko said. “As to whether we will use it, only time will tell,” he added coyly.

But it seems unlikely Russia would forgo the opportunity to match the U.S. Air Force’s accomplishment with the X-37B. That craft, a quarter-scale unmanned Space Shuttle first launched in April last year, represents one of the biggest leaps forward in space since, well, Sputnik.

The X-37 can carry anything that will fit in its pickup-truck-bed-size bay. “You can put sensors in there, satellites in there,” said Eric Sterner, from The Marshall Institute. “You could stick munitions in there, provided they exist.” The X-37 can also help repair U.S. satellites or sneak up on and disable enemy sats. Plus, it can stay in orbit for nine months, land like an airplane, then return to orbit just a few weeks later.

The initial X-37 test flight ended in December, flawlessly except for a blown tire. While “OTV 1″ is being prepped for its second flight late in 2011, its twin “OTV 2″ will boost into orbit on March 4, atop a rocket launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

It should come as no surprise that Russia wants its own “X-37ski.” With Sputnik, Moscow beat America into space. But with every major space capability since in recent decades, Washington has led its eastern rival. The U.S. fielded the manned Space Shuttle in 1981. Russia built its own, similar space vehicle, the Buran, but it flew only once, in 1988.

A decade later, America built the Global Positioning Satellite system, allowing precise navigation on Earth. Today, Russia is still struggling to construct its own version of GPS, the so-called “GLONASS.” The last attempt to reinforce the GLONASS constellation failed, when a rocket failed on launch in December, destroying three of the pricey satellites.

Not coincidentally, an X-37ski could help Russia put satellites like the GLONASS craft into orbit more reliably.

It’ll probably be a few years before the Russian X-37 clone takes flight. After all, this is super-cutting-edge technology. By then, the race for nimble military spacecraft could be a three-way competition. Just last week, there were rumors — highly, highly questionable ones — that China is working on an X-37-type vehicle, too.

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