Boeing X-37B. An experiment or a threat in space?

Since 2010, the United States has been testing the Boeing X-37B experimental spacecraft. Currently, one of the experimental machines is making another test flight, which has been going on for more than two years. Work on the X-37B is conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy, and only a few fragmentary data is published. All this leads to serious fears and questions that remain unanswered.



X-37B while in orbit, NASA demo


According to known data


The development of the future X-37 project started in 1999 and was carried out by the Boeing Phantom Works division with the active participation of NASA and the US Air Force. A few years later, NASA transferred the project to the DARPA agency, as a result of which the main works were classified. Since then, new information about the project has not become publicly available too often.

It is known that in 2005, developers began atmospheric testing of a prototype X-37A. After such checks, the project was finalized, resulting in the preparation for full-fledged tests of the X-37B product in orbit. The first flight of this kind with the designation OTV-1 began on April 22 2010 and lasted more than 220 days. Then they spent several more flights, the duration of which was constantly growing. Two experimental machines participated in the tests.

7 September 2017 was the fifth launch of X-37B. This flight continues to this day; the device has been in orbit for more than 730 days, and its return has not yet been reported. So far, this flight is the longest. Previously, information appeared about the next launch, scheduled for December this year. Probably, before the start of the OTV-6 mission, the previous one will be completed.

The reusable X-37B was created in the interests of the US Air Force, which affected the privacy mode. However, the air force revealed the most general information about the objectives of the project. The X-37B program is experimental and is designed to test technologies in the field of reusable unmanned spacecraft for the Air Force. Using the built prototypes, it was planned to check the design and on-board equipment, as well as conduct a series of studies using this or that payload.


The first prototype X-37B before launching the OTV-1, 13 on April 2010. Photo by US Air Force


According to various sources, the X-37B currently under test has a length of about 9 m with a wingspan of 4,5 m. The maximum starting weight is less than 5 t, the payload is approx. 1 t. The necessary cargo is placed in the central compartment of the device with a volume of several cubic meters. Launches were carried out using Atlas V 501 launch vehicles (4 launch) and Falcon 9 launch vehicles (1 launch).

The carriers launched the experimental equipment into low Earth orbit with an altitude of 300-400 km, mainly near the equator. During long flights, the X-37B performed various maneuvers, changed their orbits, etc. There is information about the dumping of the payload. Also, foreign media reported on attempts to conduct intelligence and solve other special problems.

Rumors and reality


Various information regularly appears about a particular X-37B operation in orbit, but for obvious reasons they do not receive official confirmation from DARPA or the US Air Force. Nevertheless, such messages together with available information about the project lead to the appearance of the most interesting and daring versions.

At the beginning of 2012, during the second flight, appeared in the foreign press news on the approach of X-37B to the Chinese space station "Tiangong-1." This was probably an attempt to observe foreign technology. However, the United States did not confirm this information, and different parameters of the orbits could completely exclude the possibility of rapprochement.


The device after returning from its first flight, December 3 2010. Photo by US Air Force


The presence of the cargo compartment and the ability to carry various equipment, both fixed and dumped in flight, determine the basic capabilities of the X-37B. It also contributes to the emergence of various versions and forecasts, some of which may well correspond to reality.

Main Features


X-37B is a reusable aircraft-type spacecraft, which gives it a number of characteristic features. First of all, this is a simpler launch into orbit and return from it. In addition, the device can be used as a vehicle to output and return a given payload. In this regard, the new X-37B is similar to the old Space Shuttle, but is smaller and has a lower payload.

An important feature of the X-37B is the already proven ability to work in orbit for a long time. The first flight lasted more than 220 days, and the duration of the fifth exceeded two years. At the same time, during all test flights, the devices not only remained in orbit, but changed the trajectory and solved different problems.

A device with similar potential can be used to carry out reconnaissance in different areas. In this case, it must carry the necessary optical or radio equipment and be displayed in the required orbit. Depending on the tasks set, the X-37B can complete the mission and quickly return to Earth or remain in orbit for a long time, performing new commands.


Completion of the fourth mission, May 7 2017. Photo by US Air Force


According to some estimates, the experimental X-37Bs have already been used to launch compact satellites of unknown purpose into orbit. In addition, they are supposedly able to "catch" small-sized objects in space and bring to Earth. Such opportunities can be used to maintain the operability of the space constellation. Also, it becomes possible to quickly deploy a small group of satellites of the necessary purpose in given orbits. For example, this may be additional means of communication over the war zone.

A payload theoretically could be weapons for various purposes. X-37B can be used as an orbital bomber or as an interceptor of space technology. However, the implementation of such opportunities is prohibited by international agreements. In addition, a reusable spacecraft may not be the best platform for weapons.

Defense issues


The X-37B spacecraft is positioned as an experimental vehicle and a demonstrator of the technologies necessary for the further development of US Air Force equipment. However, even in this quality, the device has special characteristics and capabilities, which are cause for concern. The presence of such equipment raises the question of opposing it to other states.

In this context, the means of tracking outer space are of key importance. Developed countries have the necessary optical and radar systems capable of monitoring objects in different orbits. Apparently, the design of the X-37B does not use stealth technologies, which simplifies its detection and maintenance.

When using the device as a space reconnaissance, existing and well-established protection methods should be used. First of all, this is a competent organization of military events: all basic actions should be carried out between the passage of reconnaissance spacecraft. In addition, electronic warfare can be used to protect troops or other objects from excessive attention.


Preparing for the flight OTV-5, 2017. Photo by Boeing


In some situations, you may need not just opposition or suppression, but a complete defeat of the spacecraft. This task is the most difficult in the context of defense. To combat the X-37B or similar targets, anti-satellite weapons, such as special anti-aircraft missiles, are needed. There is scattered information about the development of such weapons in different countries. There have also been several cases of the use of missiles for real orbital targets.

Multi-purpose problem


Even in the existing configuration of the flying laboratory, the Boeing X-37B spacecraft is a very interesting and promising model, quite capable of solving some real problems. In this case, we are talking about developing technologies that can later be used in new projects of equipment with higher characteristics.

In the United States, X-37B itself as well as future models created on its basis are already highly appreciated. The characteristic features of this technique will give the US Air Force new capabilities of great interest in different contexts. At the same time, even an experimental sample causes concern of third countries, which the Pentagon considers as a good sign.

In the case of the Boeing X-37B project, one can observe a curious situation. Not much is known about this development, but the available data is a serious cause for concern. The US Air Force intends to develop new technologies and take advantage of all of them. Other countries, accordingly, need to take this into account and prepare for new threats.
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  1. Firelake 13 September 2019 06: 43 New
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    I wonder what tasks 2 years can be performed?
    1. g1washntwn 13 September 2019 07: 05 New
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      The effect of cosmic radiation on elements of nuclear weapons, for example.
    2. Avis-bis 13 September 2019 09: 19 New
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      Will intelligence and surveillance work? :)
      1. g1washntwn 13 September 2019 11: 01 New
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        Specialized satellites are not satisfied with what? Or is there in the X-37 the usual cameras that need to be returned to Earth to develop the film? Intelligence is just a cover, and here obviously the elements of the strike systems are running around.
        1. Avis-bis 13 September 2019 11: 10 New
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          Quote: g1washntwn
          Specialized satellites are not satisfied with what? Or is there in the X-37 the usual cameras that need to be returned to Earth to develop the film?

          The development can also be done perfectly in flight - Luna-3 will confirm it - but, without denying the possibility of practicing strike cases, nothing prevents us from putting into the spacecraft and reconnaissance equipment. Although electronics is considered to have become much cheaper over the past decades, only the bad one will refuse to return equipment that can be used again. There is good optics (here it will never fall in price).
          1. g1washntwn 13 September 2019 11: 32 New
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            The return of failed reconnaissance satellites is unprofitable. No one due to optics or even almost the whole other components will bother with this - into orbit of a burial place or into the ocean. As a reconnaissance or communication test of individual elements, the use of the X-37 is not denied, but then they would not have been thoroughly secret. Scouts launch handfuls and armfuls, none of this makes a secret of the Madrid court (unlike the programs and tasks of the X-37 being discussed). Therefore, if there is something about intelligence, it’s not the main thing.
            1. Avis-bis 13 September 2019 11: 56 New
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              Quote: g1washntwn
              The return of failed reconnaissance satellites is unprofitable.

              And who is talking about "failed" and about his return? :) This equipment is on board the returned spacecraft.
              1. g1washntwn 13 September 2019 12: 02 New
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                Question: why go down from the 5th floor past the nurse on duty, when you can pick up cigarettes and others by transferring in a string bag directly from the room through a window on a rope?
                Why go hither and hither from high orbits to the airfield and back? The shuttle served satellites in orbit, and took only individual elements. In general, you absolutely did not convince me that the X-37 was purely reconnaissance. It’s just beyond common sense and perspective.
                1. Avis-bis 13 September 2019 12: 27 New
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                  Quote: g1washntwn
                  took only individual elements.

                  Yeah ... They completely shot a satellite like that. And returned. "Elements" ...
                  In general, you absolutely did not convince me that the X-37 was purely reconnaissance.

                  Yes, I did not set myself the task of convincing.
                  1. g1washntwn 13 September 2019 13: 15 New
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                    Quote: Avis-bis
                    Entirely shot a satellite like that.

                    And they didn’t experiment like that anymore. Risks, you know.
                    Quote: Avis-bis
                    Yes, I did not set myself the task of convincing.

                    Come on... laughing
  2. KVU-NSVD 13 September 2019 06: 48 New
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    Here they’ll finalize, including this device, the line of carriers, and then the PR operation to hammer the problems of orbital threats into the heads, and then withdraw from the peace treaty, and then, as soon as possible, the indicative “tests” of orbital “guard birds”. .and, voila, go and do not forget that somewhere in the starry sky your death is barring.
    1. g1washntwn 13 September 2019 07: 04 New
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      They switch each other there these "guardian birds." There, not only the American X-37 does not understand what it is doing, it’s just that the time has not come to open accusations. As soon as the Americans immediately declare that the Russian and Chinese communications and navigation satellites are real combat space stations that threaten pink ponies on the White House lawn, that’s why we’re just defending ourselves and we are withdrawing from the treaties and are not going to declaratively observe peaceful space . There, after all, fantasies are zero, everything will be stereotyped.
      1. KVU-NSVD 13 September 2019 07: 29 New
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        Quote: g1washntwn
        . As soon as the Americans immediately declare that the Russian and Chinese communications and navigation satellites are real combat space stations that threaten pink ponies on the White House lawn, that’s why we’re just defending ourselves and we are withdrawing from the treaties and are not going to declaratively observe peaceful space .

        I say
        PR-operation for crushing the head of the problem of orbital threats

        everything will be stereotyped.
        These patterns have certainly gotten everyone’s teeth sore, but they work because of the complete dominance of the collective West in the media sphere, the development of these technologies there and the absence of the majority of the population (this is generally everywhere) of the habit of analyzing information even at the everyday level of common sense.
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  4. Jurkovs 13 September 2019 08: 10 New
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    At one time, Brezhnev was proved that the USSR did not need a Shuttle-type machine, but a machine of a much smaller dimension (such as Bor-4), but Brezhnev said that it should be like the Americans. As a result, the world still has no payloads for the capabilities of Energy, and Russia does not have a Boeing X-37 machine.
    1. rocket757 13 September 2019 11: 21 New
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      Quote: Jurkovs
      Russia does not have a Boeing X-37 type car.

      But the Soviet has touched! Test materials, calculations and so on, so on .... I hope all that does not lie in the archives, gathering dust ???
      1. Vadim237 13 September 2019 11: 31 New
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        All this has already become obsolete both physically and morally. So Roscosmos begins the movement - "Roscosmos is developing radiolucent heat-shielding materials for radomes of hypersonic aircraft, according to the materials of the State procurement portal.

        According to the materials of the portal, the state corporation is looking for a contractor for "developing a technology for manufacturing radiotransparent heat-protective materials for fairings of hypersonic aircraft based on volumetric frames made of refractory continuous fibers." The research work was called "Thor".

        Work should be completed by September 2020. They allocated 346,9 million rubles.

        In addition, Roscosmos is looking for contractors to develop "technologies for thermomechanical testing of composite materials in a wide temperature range with programmable thermal and mechanical loads that simulate the flight conditions of promising products of rocket and space technology" (research code - "Queen") and "technologies for producing high-temperature composite materials and a new generation of reinforcing fillers, pitch-based carbon fiber frames, ceramic SiC, SiCN fibers for promising rocket launchers space technology "(code research" Breakthrough-1 ").

        Earlier, the head of the leading developer of hypersonic devices, Tactical Missile Weapons Corporation, Boris Obnosov called the development of a fairing that can withstand temperatures formed at hypersonic speeds - one of the key issues to be addressed when developing such devices.

        “Our enterprises are engaged in this (development of hypersonic devices - IF). But this requires systematic daily work in each of the areas, be it materials science, engine building, avionics ... You can imagine what to make a fairing in which there is a head homing, which should look through this fairing at high speeds, when can plasma form? " - said Obnosov, answering the question about the timing of completion of work on hypersonic weapons.

        At the same time, Obnosov noted that, in technical terms, there are many differences between the devices performing hypersonic flight partially in outer space and completely in the atmosphere. "
        1. rocket757 13 September 2019 11: 47 New
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          Well, if so. Let's see, wait.
    2. Mityay65 13 September 2019 12: 47 New
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      and Russia does not have a Boeing X-37 type car

      If we understand why this machine, considered morally obsolete, and what it has been doing in orbit for years to the States, we will understand if we need the same one. While we are at a loss. request
      So far, the feasibility of reincarnation of the ideas of 60-80 years. not obvious ...
  5. voyaka uh 13 September 2019 11: 56 New
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    Significant was the launch of the X-37 with the help of the reusable Falcon-9 rocket.
    When starting the same load, the same 1st stage Falcon-9 can send
    such new spacecraft every 48 hours.
    1. Mityay65 13 September 2019 12: 38 New
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      Dear, is there any proof? Is there a link there or at least where have you heard?
      P / S And so it looks like the mantra of the sect of St. Ilon ...
      1. Vadim237 13 September 2019 13: 01 New
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        Well, so far in the development of the world space industry in rocket science and manned astronautics, "Saint Ilon" and his company are ahead of everyone. Really waiting
        - The flight and scale will be amazing.
      2. saknivukne 13 September 2019 14: 56 New
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        Quote: Mityai65
        Dear, is there any proof?

        When a person writes about proofs regarding Ilon and SpaceX, I understand that a person shamefully does not speak English (although this is normal for the Savushkinsky people, but also a reason for pride). There is no reason to discuss with such people, not to prove anything. I hope voyaka uh is not being fooled.
  6. Undecim 13 September 2019 12: 05 New
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    If you look at a particular object from one side or another, you can see one or another picture, based on which you can make certain forecasts about a particular purpose of the object and its structure with one degree or another of certainty.
    How much I do not read this author, I never cease to be surprised at the ability to write a lot about regularly.
  7. Old26 13 September 2019 14: 15 New
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    Quote: Avis-bis
    Will intelligence and surveillance work? :)

    Hardly. The dimensions of the payload compartment in the X-37 are not very large. A very high-resolution reconnaissance satellites in the Americans are quite large. It’s easier to use satellites than this spaceplane. Although what really is in his compartment is interesting ...

    Quote: g1washntwn
    The return of failed reconnaissance satellites is unprofitable. No one due to optics or even almost the whole other components will bother with this - into orbit of a burial place or into the ocean. As a reconnaissance or communication test of individual elements, the use of the X-37 is not denied, but then they would not have been thoroughly secret.

    Well, at one time, the Americans on one of the shuttles carried out the return to the ground of the satellite observatory that failed. Satellites of this type are expensive enough to be thrown into the ocean or into orbit of a burial site. Perhaps in some situation, such a withdrawal from orbit will be cost-effective.

    Quote: g1washntwn
    Scouts launch handfuls and armfuls, none of this makes a secret of the Madrid court (unlike the programs and tasks of the X-37 being discussed). Therefore, if there is something about intelligence, it’s not the main thing.

    This has long been gone. They were launched in the 60s and 70s, when there were problems with optics (insufficient resolution) and were forced to launch into low orbits, where they lived for a week or two. There was not a week in the 60-70s that the TASS message was not published on the launch of the next Kosoms satellite in the interests of the national economy. However, in the late 70s, the Americans achieved a life span of such satellites in a few months, and we, after them, in the late 80s. Now the life spans of OER satellites are several years

    Quote: g1washntwn
    What the hell back and forth from high orbits to the airfield and back

    At X-37, the orbit is by no means high. , The maximum that was in the first flight - 415 km. And so basically between 300 and 350 km

    Quote: Mityai65
    If we understand why this machine, considered morally obsolete, and what it has been doing in orbit for years to the States, we will understand if we need the same one. While we are at a loss.

    X-37 is not a morally obsolete machine. The first launch was in 2010, that is, 9 years ago. The machine can do a lot, including and automatically sits down, as our Buran once sat. But what he does in orbit, to what extent he is able to change this orbit, maneuvering modes and their duration - these are questions that have no answer

    Quote: Jurkovs
    At one time, Brezhnev was proved that the USSR did not need a Shuttle-type machine, but a machine of a much smaller dimension (such as Bor-4), but Brezhnev said that it should be like the Americans. As a result, the world still has no payloads for the capabilities of Energy, and Russia does not have a Boeing X-37 machine.

    Sergei! Already 30 years, as "Energy" no. What kind of payloads are there. Now we are slowly trying to move towards the loads that Energy could bring, but this will take 10-15 years ...

    Quote: Mityai65
    Dear, is there any proof? Is there a link there or at least where have you heard?
    P / S And so it looks like the mantra of the sect of St. Ilon ...

    Well, the launch of September 7.09.2017, 5 (No. XNUMX) was carried out precisely at the Folkon with a return stage
    1. NN52 13 September 2019 14: 39 New
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      Somewhere infa came across that he had a cargo compartment of 1 meter by 2 meters (something like that approximately ..), and indeed, what can be accommodated with such dimensions?
      1. Vadim237 13 September 2019 16: 44 New
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        Warheads W 87, 88 with a capacity of 375 to 500 kilotons each, just three pieces fit in the compartment.
  8. saknivukne 13 September 2019 14: 51 New
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    I believe that the most important contribution of this project will be the development of simplified logistics of missions. The shuttles were ruined by imperfect logistics. Now someone reasonably decided that the shuttle form factor itself is quite normal, but so far you can train on something less.
  9. Old26 13 September 2019 15: 07 New
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    Quote: NN52
    Somewhere infa came across that he had a cargo compartment of 1 meter by 2 meters (something like that approximately ..), and indeed, what can be accommodated with such dimensions?

    I even came across numbers that are 0,9 meters by 1,8 meters laughing
  10. Operator 13 September 2019 15: 13 New
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    Can anyone explain - nevermind do I need a reusable airplane-type spacecraft (except for the descent of a single-use spacecraft from the orbit that can fit in the spacecraft’s cargo compartment in size and capacity)?
    1. Vadim237 13 September 2019 16: 50 New
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      Unfortunately, we had Tu 2000 and M 19 projects scored, unfortunately, for the sake of Buran - X 37 is needed first of all as a stand for working out materials, electronics, communications, automation in a long space flight, and the very concept of such an apparatus is rather just for the new military-space systems, SOI 2 - everything is now for real.
    2. Ilya Melnov 13 September 2019 16: 59 New
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      Quote: Operator
      Can anyone explain - nevermind do I need a reusable airplane-type spacecraft (except for the descent of a single-use spacecraft from the orbit that can fit in the spacecraft’s cargo compartment in size and capacity)?

      orbital bomber, why not explain to you?
      1. Operator 13 September 2019 17: 36 New
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        The trajectory of a discharge from a near-earth orbit to the Earth has a length of several thousand km (flight time is tens of minutes), plus to get to a specific point it is necessary to change the orbit of the spacecraft (with fuel consumption) so that the point is in the plane of the orbit.

        And the spacecraft itself shines before discharging naked in the "mother do not grieve" space.

        It is easier to launch a ground-to-ballistic ballistic missile, which the space powers have as dirt.
        1. Vadim237 13 September 2019 19: 45 New
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          A mini shuttle can make a dive to a minimum height, drop warheads at right angles to the surface of the Earth - a sudden attack from orbit to the capital or industrial center.
  11. Operator 13 September 2019 22: 48 New
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    Quote: Vadim237
    A mini shuttle can ... drop warheads at right angles to the surface of the Earth

    To drop something at right angles to the Earth's surface in orbital flight at a speed of 8 km / s is possible only in an alternative Universe.
    1. Cat man null 13 September 2019 23: 09 New
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      Quote: Operator
      possible only in an alternative universe

      Right In one of these universes Vadim lives, and you, that, do not know? belay
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    2. Vadim237 14 September 2019 00: 38 New
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      Who told you about 8 kilometers per second - I'm talking when diving at right angles with the DOE, and not from an elliptical high-altitude orbit.
      1. Operator 14 September 2019 04: 14 New
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        Any satellite or spacecraft moves in orbit around the Earth at a speed not lower than the first space one (7,9 km / s at an altitude of 200 km). Therefore, the angle of entry into the atmosphere of a reusable spacecraft (it is the angle of exit after a dive) is less than 10 degrees.

        The warhead discharged to Earth will move along a parabola with a gradual increase in the dive angle to 90 degrees. The total distance of the dive before the discharge and the flight of the warhead will be about 2000 km.
        1. Vadim237 14 September 2019 10: 47 New
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          Again, there are no problems for this kind of dive, especially for the mini-shuttle and the drop of warheads over enemy territory. And missile defense systems capable of shooting down such objects at altitudes above 80 kilometers in Russia so far are not in service. This shuttle will overcome 2000 kilometers at a speed of 8 kilometers per second in just 250 seconds, and the warheads will fall within a minute - in such a short time, no SPRN system will have enough time to warn the president and government. A missile defense system will be unable to intercept warheads.
          1. Operator 14 September 2019 11: 58 New
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            Moscow missile defense in the person of A-235 intercepts any object moving at the first space speed, at an altitude of up to 200 km and a range of up to 500 km with a reaction time of less than 4 minutes. In the future, it is planned to put into service "Nudoli" for missile defense facilities throughout Russia.

            But the most effective means of aerospace defense, as you know, are "tanks at the airfield" - a retaliatory counter-attack with ballistic missiles at enemy targets.
            1. Vadim237 15 September 2019 13: 18 New
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              The A 235 is currently armed with only missiles with a flight range of 120 kilometers and 80 kilometers in height - there are no other missiles in service.
              1. Operator 15 September 2019 13: 59 New
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                The 53Т6M missile launcher of the A-235 complex develops a maximum speed of 4 km / s. The firing range on a ballistic trajectory at this speed is 2000 km, the apogee of the trajectory is 460 km at a range of 1000 km.

                Those. I gave the real characteristics of the 53Т6М missile defense in the interception of aerospace targets (the apogee of 200 km at a range of 500 km).
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