Rockets of Today

I will briefly list here some capsules which are being used for space station freight, and aren’t intended to carry astronauts:

Finally I have to mention the X-37B — USA, 2010: this is a small (5 ton) reusable spaceplane owned by the US Air Force. It resembles the Dream Chaser except it’s not nearly as pretty, and is unmanned. Like a miniature space shuttle, this has cargo bay doors on its back. It performs secret missions of long duration, like eight months at the shortest, and not much else is known about it. The Air Force’s official position is that it’s just a testbed for new technology and a platform for zero gravity experiments. It has a single rocket nozzle on the back end, which apparently reacts kerosene with peroxide — a fuel combination which, like hypergolics, can be stored for a long time without refrigeration. On its fourth flight they added an experimental ion engine, for orbital maneuvering on those long flights. SpaceX got to launch the fifth one. The other flights were on Atlases, including the most recent one. The cargo bay is about 1.2 meters in diameter and just 2.1 meters long, and it has deployable solar panels. The Air Force has two of these spaceplanes but they don’t put them both up at the same time.

Boeing said they were thinking about building an X-37C, which looks very similar but is quite a bit bigger, and would be able to carry passengers in a cargo capsule. But nothing new has been heard since they announced the idea back in 2011.

Meanwhile, China has been working on a military spaceplane which appears to be more or less an imitation of the X-37B. They may be calling it the Shenlong Space Plane (神龙/Shénlóng is usually translated as “divine dragon”, but nowadays you might as well just say “space dragon”). They’ve been working on it for several years, and first sent a small test version to orbit in 2020 (suborbital tests date back to 2011). They’ve also announced that they’re also soon going to build a much bigger plane, possibly called Tengyun, for suborbital flights with passengers. We don’t really have to concern ourselves with that one. So it sounds like it’s a bigger, badder SpaceShipTwo... but they apparently intend to make it a lot more practical, as a means of quick intercontinental transportation.

The European Space Agency, having dropped their plans for the Hermes spaceplane, are now building their own X-37B-like drone. They call it Space RIDER, which stands for Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return. It looks more like a plastic bottle of kombucha than a plane, with hardly any control surfaces. It’s almost a pure lifting body. It’s quite petite, weighing only about three tons. This wingless shape is good for reentry but poor for runways, so at landing time it will deploy a parafoil. With sufficiently smart control of that foil, it could land on a very short runway without needing wheels. It will launch on a little Vega-C. Its developers hope to parlay this into a large crewed version, but nobody is funding that yet.