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Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Psychiatrist, the Aliens, and “Going Native”


Psychiatry, Alien abductionsHISTORY OF PSYCHIATRY
- See more at: http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/blogs/history-psychiatry/psychiatrist-aliens-and-going-native#sthash.isqEp1IE.dpuf

In 1994, after years of working with troubled individuals claiming to have been abducted by extraterrestrials—so-called experiencers—Harvard University Professor of Psychiatry John Mack (1929-2004) published one of the most controversial books in the recent history of psychiatry. Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens1 chronicles Mack’s therapeutic work with scores of men, women, and children with “conscious recall or recall with the help of hypnosis, of being taken by alien beings into a strange craft, reported with emotion appropriate to the experience being described and no apparent mental condition that could account for the story.” What made the book and Mack himself so controversial was the fact that he had come to accept that the stories his clients were recounting were an accurate description of real events. As he put it:
What the abduction phenomenon has led me (I would say now inevitably) to see is that we participate in a universe or universes that are filled with intelligences from which we have cut ourselves off, having lost the senses by which we might know them. It has become clear to me also that our restricted worldview or paradigm lies behind most of the major destructive patterns that threaten the human future—mindless corporate acquisitiveness that perpetuates vast differences between rich and poor and contributes to hunger and disease; ethnonational violence resulting in mass killing which could grow into nuclear holocaust; and ecological destruction on a scale that threatens the survival of the earth’s living systems.

Niall Boyce, editor of The Lancet Psychiatry, noted that the reaction of Mack’s colleagues was decidedly negative, with many puzzled by the fact that someone they considered intelligent, affable, and so eminently reasonable could go down the proverbial rabbit hole. Boyce, however, has tried to understand Mack’s turn more sympathetically than critics, dubbing him “the psychiatrist who wanted to believe.” “The book [Abduction],” Boyce argues, “speaks of a man easily touched by others’ emotions—indeed, a man whose perception of others’ emotional sincerity led to a belief in the reality of the experiences they described.” Mack was, therefore, “wrong for the best of reasons, and with the best of intentions.” Mack’s tragic flaw then, according to Boyce, was his failure to effectively navigate the boundaries separating the sympathetic from the critical facets of the therapeutic relationship.2
Boyce is correct that Mack’s “going native” exposed the tension between, on the one hand, the healer’s desire and need to provide comfort and, on the other, the importance of providing a critical voice and expert counterweight. It could be argued that this tension has only grown more recently as clinicians’ methods have become more firmly tied to scientific data.
That said, the question of just how far “native”—and here I use the term adjectivally, synonymous with the term “indigenous”—one may acceptably go as a professional scholar, teacher, or counselor is hardly unique to psychiatry and psychotherapy. Similar to Mack, for instance, former Temple University Professor of History David Jacobs, after writing a well-received book on the history of the UFO phenomenon in the US,3 eventually came to the view that extraterrestrials were in fact kidnapping human beings as part of a plot to breed human-alien hybrids and became a hypnotherapist and advocate for self-identified abductees.4
The issue of how far a professional may legitimately go in allying and empathizing with his or her subjects extends well beyond UFOs and aliens. Sociologist Erich Goode, for instance, has chronicled prominent cases—controversially including his own—in which social scientists have had sexual relations with informants.5 And, anthropologists widely rejected the work of Carlos Castaneda, a PhD in anthropology, after he adopted and became a vocal advocate for a form of Yaqui Indian shamanism.6
In fact, especially over the past 2 decades, anthropologists have dedicated significant time and space debating the proper limits of “going native.” Ethnography’s laudable insistence on seeing the world through the eyes of informants has historically led anthropologists to require that researchers live within the communities being studied and to learn and adopt members’ lifestyles.7 Scholars, however, have warned that if taken too far, “engaged anthropology” can help perpetuate stereotypes and trivialize indigenous lifeways and may give the researcher the false impression that he has fully captured the authentic experience of the other.8,9 Rather than attempting to know and represent some imaginary pristine, authentic way of life, critics suggest that anthropologists would be better served aspiring to sincerity—ie, acting in good faith to establish a rapport with their subjects while acknowledging their different respective positions.
Seen from the perspective of anthropology, it is possible to understand Mack’s instance of “going native” along lines that expand on the argument of Niall Boyce. It was not simply that Mack sympathized too deeply with his patients’ suffering. If we take him literally at his word, Mack’s well-intentioned desire to listen sincerely to his patients eventually led him to see in their experiences a form of lost authenticity, one he believed capable and worthy of capturing. His deeply held belief that the modern world was fraught with lethally destructive and self-destructive impulses that might be eradicated by redemptive extraterrestrial intelligences was one shared by a great many of those historically involved in the UFO and alien contact communities.10 His involvement with self-identifying alien abductees, therefore, was about more than the force of his professional concerns about his patients; it was also about the force of his political convictions—convictions he had in common with those he hoped to help.


Dr Eghigian is the History of Psychiatry Section Editor for Psychiatric Times. His full bio can found here.


1. Mack JE. Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1994.
2. Boyce N. The psychiatrist who wanted to believe. Lancet. 2012;380:1140-1141.
3. Jacobs DM. The UFO Controversy in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; 1975.
4. Jacobs DM. Secret Life: Firsthand Accounts of UFO Abductions. New York: Fireside; 1993.
5. Goode E. Sex with informants as deviant behavior: an account and commentary. Deviant Behav. 1999;20:301-324.
6. Lindquist G. Travelling by the others’ cognitive maps or going native and coming back. Ethnos. 1995;60:5-40.
7. Turner E. The reality of spirits: a tabooed or permitted field of study? Anthropol Conscious. 1993;4:9-12.
8. Marker M. Going native in the academy: choosing the exotic over the critical. Anthropol Educ Q. 1998;29:473-480.
9. Jackson JL Jr. Engaged anthropology: diversity and dilemmas. Curr Anthropol. 2010;51(suppl 2):S279-S287.
10. Eghigian G. A transatlantic buzz: flying saucers, extraterrestrials, and America in postwar Germany. J Transatlantic Stud. 2014;12:282-303.
- See more at: http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/blogs/history-psychiatry/psychiatrist-aliens-and-going-native#sthash.isqEp1IE.dpuf

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Tricky Ethics of Intergalactic Colonization


The Tricky Ethics of Intergalactic Colonization

Leif Podhajsky

Zheng He! Zheng He! Is there a better icon for interstellar voyaging?
Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng set out from China on massive naval expeditions that reached as far as Mecca and Mombasa, journeys with more than 300 vessels and 28,000 crew, excursions far bigger and longer than those of Columbus more than a half century later. Staggering in price, formidable in technical sophistication, unprecedented in level of national commitment—Zheng’s voyages remain the closest functional equivalent to the cost, effort, and risk required to travel into deep space. Trying to picture what settling other planets might entail? One place to look is 15th-century China.

Zheng was an unlikely candidate for a life of far-flung adventure. At the time of his birth, China was torn by war between the Yuan dynasty and surging Ming rebels. Zheng was born into a Muslim family in the remote Yunnan province, then a battleground between Yuan and Ming. When he was about 10, invading Ming forces captured him and slaughtered most of his family. The boy was castrated. Forced to serve the Ming crown prince, Zheng eventually became his confidant and trusted adviser. After the last Yuan emperor fled in 1368, Zheng became part of an elite group of eunuch adventurers and troubleshooters at the Ming court in Beijing.

The Ming government backed Zheng for decades. Seven times the emperor arrogantly overruled his accountants and summoned the vast amounts of material necessary to provision thousands of people on years-long voyages. Ultimately, Zheng took the Ming banner as far as West Africa and the Middle East. These areas were poorer than China, but they were thriving and productive. Alas, traveling to Africa to buy its iron, no matter how high the quality, would be like driving a hundred miles to pick up a gallon of exceptionally good milk—not a sensible use of time, money, or effort. In 1433, the voyages abruptly ceased; Ming bureaucrats had finally convinced the elite that they didn’t make economic sense.

Zheng He’s ship undertook one of mankind’s greatest explorations into the unknown. Chris Philpot

If we traveled to other worlds, could we avoid the Zheng He problem? Back in 1978, the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, a science fiction fan, playfully laid out the basic economics of interstellar trade. To justify the cost, Krugman pointed out, would-be starfarers must bring back something worth more than what they would have made by putting the same money in an interest-bearing account and staying on Earth. Going to distant planets, in other words, means fighting one of the greatest forces in human affairs: compound interest.
Today, the cheapest rockets available charge a little less than $1,000 to send 1 pound of material into low-earth orbit. Sending that pound to other planets, let alone the stars, would cost vastly more. To be sure, time and expense might be reduced by building space elevators and (should the laws of physics permit) taking advantage of handy wormholes. But the lesson of Zheng He remains: Exploration of distant lands will be a short-lived venture unless it yields something really, really valuable.

If future space voyagers decided to exploit a barren, lifeless planet, few would be upset. But such an endeavor is unlikely. As far as we know, a world without life would be a world without oxygen, a stable climate, or the possibility of growing food. Barring the discovery of some immensely valuable substance that doesn’t exist on Earth, there would be no reason to set up shop there, let alone despoil it. A world with functioning ecosystems would be more attractive. But if local species were valuable, it would be more sensible to carry back to Earth a snippet of their DNA than whole animals. The entire Alien series can be considered as a proof by negative example of this assertion.

The real jackpot, of course, would be finding a nonhuman civilization: a planetful of new ideas, techniques, and expression. Here the temptation to interact—that is, to intervene—would be enormous. China again provides an example. Travel costs today are low compared to those in the 15th century. West Africa, meanwhile, is still full of valuable resources, products, and land, so Chinese ships are again going to Africa. In the past decade, the nation has shipped in a million or more migrants. Buying and leasing swathes of land to grow food for export to the homeland, grabbing deals to extract minerals, locking up local water supplies—the newcomers have been throwing their weight around. Even though the Chinese have built many badly needed roads, bridges, and power plants, their moves have created a furor. “Landgrab!” cry African newspapers. Chinese workers have been attacked in Zambia, Cameroon, Niger, Sudan, and Angola.

History suggests that if anything of value is involved, contacts between distant societies are fraught. Think of Spain and the Aztecs. Cortés could have traded peacefully for Aztec gold and silver, but that would have involved the expense of ferrying over goods from Spain for barter. Conquest was more attractive (economically, if not morally), and greatly abetted by an epidemic of smallpox introduced to the Aztecs by the Spaniards. Stuck at the end of a trillion-mile supply chain, voyagers from Earth might be less likely to replicate the triumph of Cortés than the fates of Thomas Drummond and William Paterson. The two men were leaders of Scotland’s biggest mission to the Americas: the attempt to implant some 2,500 highlanders in Panama starting in 1698. A grandiose effort for a poor country, the expedition sucked up as much as half of the nation’s available investment capital. It was that rarest of events, an unmitigated disaster. The locals in Panama weren’t interested in trade. Unable to grow food in the unfamiliar ecosystem and beset by diseases they had no experience with, the Scots died by the hundreds. Drummond vanished; Paterson lost his wife. As the few survivors limped back to Edinburgh in 1700, Scotland’s economy collapsed, forcing it to merge with England.

Is interstellar travel too risky and economically irrational ever to happen? Turn again to Zheng He. His voyages were sponsored by the brutally ambitious emperor, who ignored his flunkies’ complaints about the cost. Key to most great leaps is at least one overconfident investor; in 15th-century Asia, the emperor played that role. Our society, vastly richer than early-modern China, has no lack of would-be successors. Look at the billionaires jumping into commercial spaceflight: Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, Naveen Jain with Moon Express, Elon Musk with SpaceX. Eventually humankind will push into space no matter what the expected cost-benefit ratio. Those first adventurers will have one advantage over their early-modern predecessors. Future starfarers will know about Zheng, Cortés, Drummond, and Paterson. They will understand that the outbound voyage, no matter how complicated and expensive, is only the beginning.

Charles C. Mann (charlesmann.org) is the author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization

 From Quarks to Quasars

The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization


Theorists assert that, as a civilization grows larger and becomes more advanced, its energy demands will increase rapidly due to its population growth and the energy requirements of its various machines. With this in mind, the Kardashev scale was developed as a way of measuring a civilization’s technological advancement based upon how much usable energy it has at its disposal.

Credit: Chris Cold
Credit: Chris Cold

The scale was originally designed in 1964 by the Russian astrophysicist,  Nikolai Kardashev (who was looking for signs of extraterrestrial life within cosmic signals). It has 3 base classes, each with an energy disposal level: Type I (10¹⁶W), Type II (10²⁶W), and Type III (10³⁶W). . Other astronomers have extended the scale to Type IV (10⁴⁶W) and Type V (the energy available to this kind of civilization would equal that of all energy available in not just our universe, but in all universes and in all time-lines). These additions consider both energy access as well as the amount of knowledge the civilizations have access to.
Firstly, it is important to note that the human race is not even on this scale yet. Since we still sustain our energy needs from dead plants and animals, here on Earth, we are a lowly Type 0 civilization (and we have a LONG way to go before being promoted to a type I civilization). The famous physicist Michio Kaku believes we will reach Type I in 100 – 200 years time. But what does each of these categories actually stand for in literal terms?

A Type I designation is a given to species who have been able to harness all the energy that is available from a neighboring star, gathering and storing it to meet the energy demands of a growing population. This means that we would need to boost our current energy production over 100,000 times to reach this status. However, being able to harness all Earth’s energy would also mean that we could have control over all natural forces. Human beings could control volcanoes, the weather, and even earthquakes! (At least, that is the idea.) These kinds of feats are hard to believe, but compared to the advances that may still be to come, these are just basic and primitive levels of control (it’s absolutely nothing compared to the capabilities of societies with higher rankings).

Image Credit: Slawek Wojtowicz
A Dyson Sphere (Credit: Slawek Wojtowicz)

The next step up – a Type II civilization – can harness the power of their entire star (not merely transforming starlight into energy, but controlling the star). Several methods for this have been proposed. The most popular of which is the hypothetical ‘Dyson Sphere.’ This device, if you want to call it that, would encompass every single inch of the star, gathering most (if not all) of its energy output and transferring it to a planet for later use. Alternatively, if fusion power (the mechanism that powers stars) had been mastered by the race, a reactor on a truly immense scale could be used to satisfy their needs. Nearby gas giants can be utilized for their hydrogen, slowly drained of life by an orbiting reactor.

What would this much energy mean for a species? Well, nothing known to science could wipe out a Type II civilization. Take, for instance, if humans survived long enough to reach this status, and a moon sized object entered our solar system on a collision course with our little blue planet–we’d have the ability to vaporize it out of existence. Or if we had time, we could move our planet out of the way, completely dodging it. But let’s say we didn’t want to move Earth… are there any other options? Well yes, because we’d have the capability to move Jupiter, or another planet of our choice, into the way – pretty cool, right?

A Cyborg (Credit: Justin Lee)
A Cyborg (Credit: Justin Lee)

So we’ve gone from having control over a planet, to a star, which has resulted in us harboring enough “disposable” energy to essentially make our civilization immune to extinction. But now, onto Type III, where a species then becomes galactic traversers with knowledge of everything having to do with energy, resulting in them becoming a master race.  In terms of humans, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution – both biological and mechanical – may result in the inhabitants of this type III civilization being incredibly different from the human race as we know it. These may be cyborgs (or cybernetic organism, beings both biological and robotic), with the descendants of regular humans being a sub-species among the now-highly advanced society. These wholly biological humans would likely be seen as being disabled, inferior, or unevolved by their cybernetic counterparts.

At this stage, we would have developed colonies of robots that are capable of ‘self replication’; their population may increase into the millions as they spread out across the galaxy, colonizing star after star. And these being might build Dyson Spheres to encapsulate each one, creating a huge network that would carry energy back to the home planet. But stretching over the galaxy in such a manner would face several problems; namely, the species would be constrained by the laws of physics. Particularly, light-speed travel. That is, unless they develop a working warp drive, or use that immaculate energy cache to master wormhole teleportation (two things that remain theoretical for the time being), they can only get so far.

An artist rendering of such a civilization (Credit: Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword)
An artist rendering of such a civilization (Credit: Sid Meier’s Civilization IV)

Kardashev believed a Type IV civilization was ‘too’ advanced and didn’t go beyond Type III on his scale. He thought that, surely, this would be the extent of any species’ ability. Many think so, but a few believe there is a further level that could be achieved. (I mean, surely there is a limit?) Type IV civilizations would almost be able to harness the energy content of the entire universe and with that, they could traverse the accelerating expansion of space (furthermore, advance races of these species may live inside supermassive black holes). To previous methods of generating energy, these kinds of feats are considered impossible. A Type IV civilization would need to tap into energy sources unknown to us using strange, or currently unknown, laws of physics.

Type V. 

Yes, Type V might just be the next possible advancement to such a civilization. Here beings would be like gods, having the knowledge to manipulate the universe as they please. Now, as I said, humans are a very, very long way from ever reaching anything like this. But it’s not to say that it cannot be achieved as long as we take care of Earth and each other. To do so, the first step is to preserve our tiny home, extinguish war, and continue to support scientific advances and discoveries.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Rocket Explosion Prompts Doubts about Commercial Spaceflight


Rocket Explosion Prompts Doubts about Commercial Spaceflight


This week’s fiery failure of Orbital Sciences’s Antares rocket has some wondering if the company has the right stuff to support NASA’s goal to outsource orbital flights 

An Antares rocket suffers a catastrophic anomaly shortly after launch.

The Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket suffers a catastrophic anomaly seconds after lifting off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on October 28. 2014. The rocket and the uncrewed Cygnus spacecraft it carried were on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
When, seconds after liftoff on October 28, an Antares rocket built by the Orbital Sciences Corp. fell back and exploded over its launch pad at a NASA facility in Wallops Island, Va., much more than its payload of small satellites and International Space Station cargo may have been lost.

The rocket did not carry a crew, and no one was injured, but damage to the surrounding launch infrastructure was significant. A cursory inspection revealed shattered windows, imploded doors and broken equipment around the launch pad that will require extensive repairs. How much damage has been dealt to Orbital Sciences’s reputation, and perhaps even NASA’s quest to outsource orbital flights, is less certain.

Orbital Sciences is one of two companies NASA now relies on to fly supplies to the space station. Four previous Antares flights, including three to the station, had launched successfully, and five resupply flights remain in the company’s $1.9-billion NASA contract. Orbital Sciences’ stock price has fallen by some 15 percent in recent days and the rocket mishap potentially complicates its planned merger with another aerospace company, Alliant Techsystems. “This is a big problem for NASA,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida. “They are now dependent on the commercial sector to lift payloads to the space station, and their own rocket, the Space Launch System, is at least three years out and is intended for other purposes. So what happens if Orbital Sciences can’t get its rockets fixed? Then what do you do?”

The space agency does have some options. NASA officials said the station’s crew was in no danger of running out of supplies for several months, and on Wednesday a Russian Soyuz rocket launched a resupply mission that docked with the station to deliver even more. SpaceX, the other company NASA uses to resupply the station, is slated to launch its fourth delivery in December and has eight more scheduled. Orbital Sciences’s next Antares launch, previously set for April, is likely to be delayed for several months.

According to John Logsdon, a space policy expert at The George Washington University, if Orbital cannot return its Antares rockets to flight in time to fulfill the remaining resupply missions in its contract, NASA could buy additional flights from Russia—or SpaceX, if the company proves to have sufficient “surge capacity.” In “extreme cases,” Logsdon says, NASA could even buy launches from the space agencies of Europe, India or Japan. “This just reinforces NASA’s good judgment in having two providers, both Orbital and SpaceX,” says Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry association. If Orbital was the only provider, there might be a six-month or even a year before a return to flight. But SpaceX looks ready and will probably launch [its next resupply mission] in early December, so this redundant system will work.”

This is not Orbital Sciences’s first high-profile launch failure. In 2009 a malfunction in the fairing separation of its Taurus XL rocket destroyed NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite; in 2011 a similar problem doomed NASA’s Glory spacecraft. Even so, in the aftermath of the Antares failure a variety of NASA officials, congressional representatives and senators, and industry experts have issued statements in support of Orbital Sciences and the company’s ongoing service to the space agency.

The cause of this latest failure is not yet known but investigators will be closely examining the Antares rocket’s twin main engines as a possible culprit. Russia designed and built hundreds of the liquid-fueled engines in the late 1960s and early 1970s for a giant rocket to send cosmonauts to the moon but shelved them after NASA’s successful Apollo missions. An American company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, purchased many of the engines in the late 1990s, refurbishing them and offering them to private companies. Orbital Sciences bought 20, some of which were discarded after test-firings revealed flaws.

In a conference call with investors, Orbital Sciences’s CEO David Thompson said that if the Russian main engines were found to have contributed to the accident, the company could attempt to accelerate the estimated two-year development time for an already planned replacement engine.

The fact that Orbital Sciences chose to purchase the old Russian engines for Antares, Logsdon says, “is symptomatic of the fact that the United States has underinvested in its space program and failed to develop a modern propulsion engine.” The Atlas 5, a workhorse U.S. rocket, also uses Russian engines that, albeit newly manufactured, were designed in the 1960s. Another American rocket, the Delta 4, uses domestic-built engines designed in the early 2000s. These Delta 4 engines were the sole large liquid-fueled engines designed in the U.S. since the 1970s until the recent debut of SpaceX’s all-American engines, which the company designs and builds in-house.

The gap in U.S. engine development, Handberg says, was a product of wishful thinking in a post–cold war world. “We’re keeping Russian technologists working, building these things, but we’re not doing the same for ourselves. We can do better, obviously, since the Deltas are flying and SpaceX is building engines. We have the technology and the people, but we don’t seem to have much political will.”

According to Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator who helped mastermind the agency’s outsourcing strategy, political support for more commercial space development is on the upswing, particularly as NASA ramps up its efforts to use private companies not only to transport cargo to the space station, but also crew. In September the agency revealed its selection of SpaceX as well as the aerospace giant Boeing to each ferry astronauts to the space station in coming years. “There are just so many people supporting commercial space now,” Garver says. “It’s really seen as the Russians versus American companies like Boeing and SpaceX. I don’t think there’s a single member of Congress who would vote for the Russians in that matchup.”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

FYI: Air Force's mysterious X-37B space plane nears one year in orbit


Air Force's mysterious X-37B space plane nears one year in orbit

This NASA Marshall Space Flight Center image shows on-orbit functions for the reusable X-37 space plane. NASA/MSFC

The U.S. Air Force's mysterious X-37B space plane is nearing a major milestone — one year of travel in Earth orbit, performing duties in support of long-term space objectives.

The unmanned X-37B spacecraft — flying a mission known as Orbital Test Vehicle 3 (OTV-3) — launched into space atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 11, 2012. What payloads the space plane is toting and the overall mission goals on its confidential cruise are classified.

But it is known that the OTV-3 mission signals a milestone for the X-37B program. [See photos from Air Force's 3rd mystery flight of the X-37B space plane]

This same vehicle was flown on the X-37B program's inaugural flight back in 2010. That OTV-1 mission lasted nearly 225 days in orbit, gliding back to Earth on autopilot over the Pacific Ocean and touching down at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

An OTV-2 mission, which used a different X-37B space plane, was lofted in 2011. That vehicle flew for 469 days, more than doubling its sister ship’s space stay, concluding its mission by also making a Vandenberg landing.

Altitude changes

A global network of skywatchers has been keeping an eye on the robotic space plane's movements during its three flights to date. Some veteran observers, like skywatcher Kevin Fetter of Brockville, Ontario in Canada, have even captured video of the X-37B space plane in the night sky.

"All three OTV missions maneuvered to change altitude at least once between launch and landing. Between maneuvers, they made frequent small thruster firings to counteract the effects of atmospheric drag, to maintain a nearly constant altitude," said Ted Molczan of Toronto, a leader in the worldwide community of satellite trackers.

Taking a look at the military space plane's past flights and the present-day mission, Molczan told SPACE.com that OTV-1 occupied a half-dozen different orbital altitudes during its 225-day mission. OTV-2 occupied two different orbital altitudes during its days aloft, accomplished by a series of small thruster firings over a seven-week period. [Photos: Spotting Satellites & Spaceships from Earth]
"OTV-3, as of day 343 in flight, has occupied two different orbital altitudes, accomplished using standard Hohmann transfer maneuvers about 11 weeks after launch," Molczan said in a Nov. 22 email.

Lifting-body design
 The two known X-37B space planes have been built for the Air Force by Boeing Government Space Systems, with flights conducted under the auspices of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.

The 11,000-pound (4,990 kilograms) X-37B is one-fourth the size of an orbiter in the now-retired NASA space shuttle fleet but relies upon the same type of lifting-body design.

The vehicle is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and nearly 15 feet (4.5 m) wide and has a payload bay that measures 7 feet (2.1 meters) long and 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide. Traveling in low-Earth orbit, the space plane operates from 110 miles (177 kilometers) to 500 miles (805 km) in altitude.

Next-generation technology

According to a Boeing fact sheet, each space plane is built with lightweight composite structures, rather than traditional aluminum. A new generation of high-temperature leading-edge tiles for the wings is utilized, distinct from the space shuttle’s carbon leading-edge segments.

The X-37B is outfitted with toughened uni-piece fibrous insulation impregnated silica tiles, which are significantly more durable than the first-generation tiles used by the space shuttle. Advanced conformal reusable insulation blankets are used for the first time on the X-37B.

The Boeing fact sheet also points out that avionics on an X-37B are designed to automate all de-orbit and landing functions. Additionally, there are no hydraulics onboard the winged vehicle; flight controls and brakes use electromechanical actuation.

Air Force mission control 
 Mission control for OTV flights are handled by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. This unit is billed as the Air Force Space Command’s premier organization for space-based demonstrations, pathfinders and experiment testing, gathering information on objects high above Earth and carrying out other intelligence-gathering duties.

While details are scant about the X-37B program, a little light on the project may be shed during the National Space Club'’s 57th Annual Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner, to be held next March in Washington, D.C.

Slated to receive the General Bernard Schriever Award at the event is Major Joshua Chumley, USAF, Commander, Operating Location Alpha, 3d Space Experimentation Squadron, U.S. Air Force Space Command.

Chumley is on tap to pick up the prestigious award "for leading a selectively manned team responsible for operation of the United States’ first unmanned, autonomous, reusable space plane — the Orbital Test Vehicle, or X-37B," according to a National Space Club press release.

Landing location?
 Although there’s no official word how long the OTV-3 mission will go, there has been some talk that this craft may not land at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The Air Force has been evaluating auto-piloting the vehicle down at the space shuttle landing strip at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, next door to its Cape Canaveral departure site.

Making use of former space shuttle infrastructure is viewed as a possible cost-cutting measure for the program, officials have said.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and is co-author of Buzz Aldrin's new book "Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration" published by National Geographic. 

Follow us @SpacedotcomFacebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Secretive X-37B space plane returns to Earth, two years on

Secretive X-37B space plane returns to Earth, two years on


The Air Force says that the almost one-of-a-kind spacecraft "conducted on-orbit experiments" in the the longest-ever mission for the X-37B program.


X-37B nose
The X-37B space plane and NASA's space shuttles have common roots, and it shows. Boeing
The intriguingly long mission of the unmanned X-37B has come to a conclusion at last. But the mystery of the mission lingers on.

The US Air Force space plane, one of just two X-37B vehicles in the Pentagon's inventory, landed Friday morning under the auspices of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after 674 days in space -- that is, 22 months.

And that's about all that the space plane's handlers would say about the mission, aside from the terse statement that it "conducted on-orbit experiments."
"The mission is our longest to date and we're pleased with the incremental progress we've seen in our testing of the reusable space plane," the Air Force said in a statement.

The Air Force also said it plans to start the next X-37B mission sometime in 2015, launching from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Almost as remarkable as the length and the hush-hush nature of the mission is one of the signature skills of the Boeing-built X-37B -- the unmanned spacecraft flies autonomously on its return trip to Earth.

The Air Force has said precious little -- ever -- about its X-37B missions, leading to wide-ranging speculation about what the diminutive space vehicle has been up to up there, or is building toward. Theories hit on everything from terrestrial surveillance to satellite launches (or, conversely, satellite killing) to weapons platform aimed at ground targets.

Or it could be more mundane: these could simply be shakedown cruises to see how a space plane, one with no human aboard, fares on extended junkets into orbit and back. It can't be easy to work all the kinks out of the algorithms that enable a space plane to maneuver in orbit, and in re-entry and landing, without a human at the controls.

The boilerplate description on the Air Force's fact sheet is not exactly illuminating: "The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth."
This was the third spaceflight of an X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, since missions began five years ago. The first, which ended in December 2010, lasted 224 days, and the second, which ended in June 2012, endured for 469 days, or a year and four months.

This latest mission began December 11, 2012, when an Atlas V rocket carrying the space plane lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

There are two OTV craft in the X-37B fleet. The one that flew on the just-ended mission is OTV-1, which also carried out the first of the flights to date.

Confusingly the numbers in the the OT-x designations seem to be used loosely both for the spacecraft (-1 and -2) and for the missions (-1, -2, and now -3).
NASA last week said it has entered into an agreement with the Air Force's X-37B program for use of the Kennedy Space Center's Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) Bays 1 and 2 -- former space shuttle hangars -- to process the X-37B for launch. Boeing is performing construction upgrades in those facilities that are targeted to be complete in December.

But the flights of the X-37B -- however many eventually take place -- could just be the groundwork for the next generation of space plane.

In July, DARPA took a first step back into the game, announcing the start of design work toward the XS-1, which also would be a reusable unmanned vehicle for "aircraft-like access to space." The agency didn't mind mentioning potential payloads: "XS-1 seeks to deploy small satellites faster and more affordably, and develop technology for next-generation hypersonic vehicles."

It's probably not too much of a surprise that Boeing is in the mix, winning a $4 million preliminary design contract for its concept of the XS-1. (Teamed with Boeing is Blue Origin, the spacecraft-minded company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.) The other two Phase 1 contracts went to Northrop Grumman (working with Virgin Galactic) and to Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace).
About the author

Jonathan Skillings is managing editor of CNET News, based in the Boston bureau. He's been with CNET since 2000, after a decade in tech journalism at the IDG News Service, PC Week, and an AS/400 magazine. He's also been a soldier and a schoolteacher, and will always be a die-hard fan of jazz, the brassier the better.