X-Wings to fly again

A new generation of experimental satellites that fly in formation and manoeuvre in space are about to emerge from the drawing boards of U.S. Air Force engineers.

The experimental craft, called ‘X-satellites’ after the X-rocket planes of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, may start test flights as soon as next year if budgets are approved by the Pentagon. The craft may push the envelope of space designs and establish fleets of small satellites that could be quickly deployed on a variety of military missions.

‘These are truly ‘Concept Cars for Space’ – things that might migrate someday as systems for the future,’ said Christine M. Anderson, Director for Space Vehicles at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

The concepts now under final design and study include a solar-powered transfer vehicles that can deliver multiple payloads while shifting their orbits; on-orbit space platforms that serve as space gas stations, and all whilst orbiting earth at 17,500 per hour.

Anderson said that new designs for ultra-efficient rocket engines, lightweight structures that can slash the cost of putting payloads into orbit and energy-producing solar cells that can be ‘cut from a roll like carpet’ are on military planner’s drawing boards now at the AFRL.

Partners in the research work include NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. U.S. Navy space planners are also interested in the results from the test flights.

‘Different technologies are important in addressing military requirements,’ Anderson explained.

And unlike the X-plane projects of past decades, cost is a major consideration in the fielding of the X-satellites. ‘We’re not only attacking performance but also affordability,’ said Anderson. ‘We want to make sure that the technology will be manufactured in an affordable way.’