Tag Archives: DARPA

Mysterious X-37B Unmanned Space Plane Returns After Long, Secret Mission.

Mission of Secret Space Drone Remains Unknown Following 717-Day Orbit.

The secretive U.S. Air Force Boeing X-37B orbital unmanned spacecraft has landed at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on the east coast of Florida after an extended 717-day long mission in earth orbit. The specifics of the mission and the role of the X-37B remain classified.

The spacecraft touched down on runway 15 using normal aircraft-style landing gear, similar to the now-retired manned space shuttle program. Landing time was shortly before noon UTC or about 08:00 AM local time zone in the Eastern U.S. Despite its classified mission, video of the landing has been widely publicized.

The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 landed at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017. Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft that performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.

Since the first flight of the X-37B was seven years ago, on April 22, 2010, it is reasonable to suggest the program has moved beyond the developmental stage and may now be an operational project. This has created substantial speculation about what the role of the X-37B may be.

Three theories have prevailed:

The first theory is that the X-37B is a space-based weapons platform. The spacecraft is pre-deployed into orbit armed with some type of weaponized re-entry vehicle that could be released over or near a specific target. It may also be a weapons delivery vehicle deployed in defense of space-based commercial assets such as the GPS satellite constellation. This theory is debunked by most analysts.

Secondly, and most plausibly, the spacecraft may be a platform for gathering intelligence. This could include signals intelligence such as activities of communications and surveillance satellites, both civilian and military. With approximately 2,271 satellites in orbit around the earth at various altitudes performing a wide variety of functions this theory tends to be the most realistic. It may also be ground mapping radar and other surveillance mediums. Since the large internal payload bay of the X-37B, about the size of the interior of a small general aviation aircraft such as a Cessna Caravan, is interchangeable the spacecraft could be “mission adaptive”, meaning it could be reconfigured for various types of surveillance. That this last mission was so long in duration suggests the X-37B may have had a means of transmitting intelligence from space back down to earth, somehow beyond the capabilities of existing space based surveillance platforms like satellites.

Lastly, and most unlikely, the X-37B remains a research project. It could potentially be a test bed for deploying satellites and servicing them robotically in space, releasing new orbital packages into space or any number of other roles not yet performed operationally. Given the duration and investment into the program along with the operational security surrounding it this theory seems least likely. A major part of X-37B operations are administered by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a shadowy U.S. government agency located in Arlington, Virginia.

In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline March 30, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, FLa. (Courtesy photo)

Several techno-thriller writers have included the X-47B in their fictional story lines as both an ISR platform (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) and a weapons delivery vehicle.

Whatever the role of the secret X-37B project the continuing operation of the spacecraft certainly verifies it is up to something. For the time being it remains one of many fascinating projects we are left to speculate about, which is sometimes more fun than actually knowing.


Up close and personal with NASA’s Global Hawk drones at Edwards Air Force Base

NASA operates the giant Northrop Grumman Global Hawk drone to collect weather data.

On Feb. 5, NASA showed off its newest and smartest unmanned Global Hawk aircraft to reporters at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center located on Edwards AFB, CA.

Shorealone Films photographer Matt Hartman went there to report about the NASA’s Global Hawk fleet.


These aircraft have been helping NOAA scientists, researchers and forecasters with gathering weather information from altitudes and conditions not suitable for humans.


The missions tasked by these aircraft can last almost 24hours without refueling.

The Sensing Hazards with Operational Unmanned Technology (SHOUT) project led by the NOAA Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Program, will deploy the NASA Global Hawks carrying a suite of meteorological sensors and deploying dropsondes during four research flights in February.


According to the NASA website, the agency acquired its three drones from the U.S. Air Force. These are among the very first UAS (unmanned Aerial Systems) built under the original Global Hawk Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator development program sponsored by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

The Global Hawk is a gigantic drone: 44 feet in length it has a wingspan of more than 116 feet, a height of 15 feet, and a gross takeoff weight of 26,750 pounds, including a 1,500-pound payload capability. It is powered by a single Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine and features a distinctive V-tail.


The engine cover, aft fuselage and wings are constructed primarily of graphite composite materials; the center fuselage is made of aluminum, whereas various fairings and radomes feature fiberglass composite construction.

NASA’s Global Hawks made the headlines last week, after a hacker under the name of @CthulhuSec and the hacking group AnonSec started posting massive data belonging to NASA on Pastebin: such leaked data included around 150 GB of drone logs as well as 631 aircraft and radar videos along with 2,143 email address of NASA employees.


Interestingly, not only did the hacking group exfiltrate data from NASA’s network, but they also claim to have achieved “semi-partial control” of one of the agency’s Global Hawk drones by replacing the original .gpx file (containing the aircraft’s pre-planned route) with one crafted to direct it along a different route; a claim that has been denied by NASA.


This is not the first time civil or military drones are hacked.

The Intercept has recently reported that GCHQ and NSA compromised video feeds from Israeli drones from a base in Cyprus.

Previously, Iran claimed to have captured a CIA’s RQ-170 Sentinel drone by hijacking it.

U.S. Air Force Predator drones were reportedly infected by a malware that captured all the operator’s keystrokes in 2011.


All images: Matt Hartman

Here is Pentagon’s Future Tilt-Rotor Drone

Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System will perform cargo resupply, CASEVAC and ISR missions

According to Darpa “ARES is a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) flight module designed to operate as an unmanned platform capable of transporting a variety of payloads. The ARES VTOL flight module is designed to have its own power system, fuel, digital flight controls and remote command-and-control interfaces. Twin tilting ducted fans will provide efficient hovering and landing capabilities in a compact configuration, with rapid conversion to high-speed cruise flight.”

ARES is the transformer-like, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) capable to move between an airport, a warship, or an improvised landing zone and the battlefield, and perform a wide variety of missions, including cargo transportation, casualties evacuation as well as Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

In other words, ARES will replace the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and a few other platforms.

Obviously, using a drone to perform such missions in a contested airspace reduces the risks of losing airmen.

By the way, ARES will be remotely piloted using smartphones and tablets: we are moving towards air war 2.0.

ARES Darpa Battlefield Operations

Image credit: Lockheed Martin


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B-1 Lancer bomber launches first prototype of new Stealth Long Range Anti-Ship Missile

The brand new LRASM (Long Range Anti-Ship Missile) based on the AGM-158 JASSM-ER (Extended Range) missile was successfully tested at the Point Mugu range, in California, recently

The prototype of a stealth anti-ship missile was first tested on Aug. 27, 2013, even if DARPA released the news some days later.

Along with its ability to be launched from aircraft, the missile will be compatible with Mk41 Vertical Launch System used by surface warships and submarines.

The tripartite research is carried out together by DARPA, USAF and US Navy’s Office of Naval Research, with Lockheed Martin being the manufacturer of the weapon.

The rocket was tested using a Dyess Air Force B-one (“Bone”), from 337th Test and Evaluation Squadron.

The new missile uses its inertial navigation and GPS (global positioning systems) to find its target, and an infrared seeker for pinpoint accuracy right before impact. Noteworthy, the weapon is reported to be extremely jamming resistant and able to operate in “contested and degraded environments”.

The missile hit a moving unmanned 80m vessel: unlike other anti-ship missiles, the LRASM is capable of conducting autonomous targeting, relying on on-board targeting systems to autonomously identify the target without the need of having the target’s GPS in advance.

During the first test, half the way to the target, the missile deviated from the planned route and started an autonomous flight towards the intended place of hit, using own systems: three objects were placed in the target are and both were automatically identified.

The missile initially flies at medium altitude before descending to low altitude to avoid anti-missile defenses by means of a sea skimming approach to the target.

Even though the weapon is based on JASSM-ER, it is believed to have the same range as a standard JASSM (about 200 miles). The difference with JASSM (a GPS-guided cruise missiles with 2,250-lbs warhead) is in its avionics: the LRASM features a multi-mode radio frequency sensor, a new weapon datalink and altimeter. What is more, the missile also houses an uprated power system.

Two more tests are planned later this year.

By the way the U.S. and Finland are active users of JASSM missiles, while Poland will probably purchase the weapon for its F-16 Block 52+’s.

Jacek Siminski for TheAviationist

Top image: B-1 drops a JASSM (Lockheed Martin)



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Secretive X-37B is launched for a third classified mission around the planet

Dec. 11 saw the third launch of Boeing’s X-37B, the unmanned, reusable, mini-shuttle orbiter.

The space plane was launched atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, just after 1.00pm Eastern Time.

According to Flight Global this example is on its second flight demonstrating its ability to be re-used for space flight. The previous flight was 224 days in duration whilst the other example stayed aloft for a staggering 469 days on its mission.

The U.S. Air Force has again not disclosed the vehicle’s mission nor its expected duration, but United Launch Alliance whose rocket safely took the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) into orbit, provided a webcast of the launch.

Although once safely in orbit the broadcast was ended “at the request of our customer [the Air Force]”

It is thought that once the clandestine mission is complete, the orbiter will land on the Shuttle runway at Cape Canaveral.

Richard Clements for TheAviationist.com