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Air Force buys souped-up, stealthy version of Predator drone

General Atomics' Avenger, also known as Predator C, in mid-flight

Adding to its growing arsenal of robotic aircraft, the Air Force has purchased a new high-flying hunter-killer drone.

For $15 million, the military bought one stealthy, jet-powered drone, dubbed Avenger, from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. -- the same San Diego company that builds MQ-1 Predators and larger MQ-9 Reapers.

The remotely piloted Predators and Reapers have become a central element for the Obama administration to hunt and destroy targets in the Middle East. The Avenger, also known as Predator C, is General Atomics’ third and latest version of these drones.

With a length of 44 feet and maximum takeoff weight of 15,800 pounds, the Avenger is larger, faster and can carry more weaponry than its predecessors.

For example, the propeller-driven Reaper is 36 feet long and has a maximum takeoff weight of 10,500 pounds. The largest bombs it carries weigh 500 pounds and hang from its wings.

The Avenger, on the other hand, has an internal bomb bay like other modern fighter and bomber jets. It is designed to carry 2,000-pound bombs, as well as heavier camera and sensor packages.

Both the Reaper and Avenger have 66-foot wingspans with a maximum altitude of around 50,000 feet.

The Reaper can stay aloft for 30 hours at time –- 10 hours longer than the Avenger. But with the power of a turbofan engine, the Avenger’s top speed is around 460 mph, much faster than the Reaper's 276 mph.

General Atomics first flew the Avenger back in April 2009 at the company's Gray Butte Flight Operations Facility in Palmdale. But even with more than two years of flight tests under its belt, the Avenger is strictly a test aircraft for the Air Force to evaluate its “performance characteristics,” said Jennifer Cassidy, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

“There is no intention to deploy the aircraft in the war in Afghanistan at this time,” she said.

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Photo: General Atomics' Avenger in mid-flight. Credit: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

Air Force says pilot at fault in fatal F-22 Raptor crash

F-22 Raptor fighter jets

The Air Force made public a long-awaited report about the death of a pilot who crashed in the Alaskan wilderness in the military's most expensive fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor.

An Air Force accident investigation board issued a report that said Capt. Jeff "Bong" Haney, 31, was at fault when his F-22 crashed near Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson during a test mission at night in November 2010.

Investigators came to that conclusion despite finding that the aircraft's air intakes had experienced a malfunction and caused an automatic shutdown of various systems -- including the main oxygen supply -- which cut off air to Haney's mask.

The report found that Haney's oxygen supply was stopped automatically after the F-22's onboard computers detected an air leak in the engine bay. When that happened, the system shut down the oxygen system to protect itself from further damage, as designed.

To save himself and the plane, Haney should have engaged an "emergency oxygen system" by pulling a green ring located under his seat by his left thigh or by simply taking his mask off, the report said.

Instead Haney, flying about the speed of sound above the snow-covered valley below, tried to slow down and began to descend in an attempt to get himself air, the report said. When that didn't work, Haney became disoriented and his aircraft began to roll into an inadvertent dive that he was too slow to pull out of, the report said.

Haney's "channelized attention" to get himself oxygen through his mask instead of engaging the emergency system led to factors that contributed to the crash, the report said.

Haney, known to be a highly skilled fighter pilot, crashed about 138 miles north of the base in the Talkeetna Mountains, the Air Force said.

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Key moments in history at Space Park campus in Redondo Beach

Spacepark

Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Space Park complex in Redondo Beach is being honored Wednesday in a formal ceremony by the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

The professional society, made up of aerospace engineers and scientists, is designating Space Park as a historic aerospace site.

Here are some key moments in its history. 

1960: A 110-acre site is purchased in Redondo Beach for the Space Park site and ground is broken.

1961: Space Park opens its new buildings and facilities for what would become TRW Inc.

1965: TRW supplies descent engines for Apollo moon-landing missions.

1967: Several scenes for an episode of the television show “Star Trek” are filmed at Space Park. The location was chosen for its appearance, as described in "The Star Trek Compendium": “A series of symmetrical buildings, this modern complex provided the ideal surroundings for a colony of the future.”

1978: The first-ever shoot down of a rocket in flight by a high-powered laser occurs with a chemical laser built by TRW for the Navy and the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

1983: Pioneer 10, a robotic space probe to Jupiter becomes the first man-made object to leave the solar system. The probe was launched in 1972.

1994: The first of five Milstar military anti-jam communications satellites is launched, carrying a low-data-rate payload engineered and built by TRW.

1996: A TRW laser shoots down a short-range rocket in flight.

2002: Northrop Grumman acquires TRW. TRW’s operations become Northrop’s Space Technology and Mission Systems sectors.

2005: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope team, of which Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor, completes the initial step in manufacturing all the primary mirrors for the next-generation space observatory's telescope. It is now under development to replace the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s expected to launch in 2014.

A story about the Space Park complex appears in The Times today.

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Photo: TRW Inc.'s Space Park circa 1968. Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp.

Billionaire Paul Allen launches new commercial space company

Strato

Seattle billionaire and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen is launching a new commercial space travel company that would carry tourists into orbit with the help of Southern California aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan.

The Huntsville, Ala., company, named Stratolaunch Systems, promises to bring “airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions.” The company plans for a first flight within five years.

In a news conference Tuesday, Rutan and former NASA chief Mike Griffin said they joined Stratolaunch as board members. Along with Allen, the trio introduced the company’s novel idea of launching payloads into orbit aboard what would be the largest aircraft ever flown.

The plane is set to have a wingspan of 385 feet and be powered by six engines found on Boeing Co.’s 747 jumbo jets. The wingspan is 67 feet longer than Howard Hughes’ H-4 Hercules, dubbed Spruce Goose, and bigger than the length of a football field.

The plane will be developed by Mojave-based Scaled Composites, an aerospace design shop founded by Rutan in 1982.

The aircraft will need to be large enough to carry a manned rocket ship under its wing to 30,000 feet. Once there, the rocket ship will separate and blast into orbit. A video of how it works can be seen below or here.

The rocket ship will be powered by a multi-stage booster, manufactured by Hawthorne-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX.

Stratolaunch brings together the heavyweights and big names of the commercial space industry.

This new space race started in 2004 when Allen and Rutan teamed up to build the world’s first commercial spaceship, aptly named SpaceShipOne, for a demonstration flight.

“I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne -- to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system,” Allen said in a statement. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”

 

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Photo: Screen shot of Stratolaunch Systems YouTube video. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

SpaceX poised to make history with space station docking

Spacex

Hawthorne-based commercial space venture SpaceX is set to send its Dragon space capsule to dock with the $100-billion International Space Station -- a feat that's been accomplished only by the world's wealthiest nations.

NASA announced Friday that the private company, formally named Space Exploration Technologies Corp., will aim to launch its 18-story Falcon 9 rocket Feb. 7, pending completion of final safety reviews, testing and verification.

In a statement, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the mission "will mark a historic milestone in the future of spaceflight.”

It’s also a mission that takes the company one step closer to cashing in on a $1.6-billion contract with NASA. The contract is to haul cargo in 12 flights to the space station for NASA.

If the February mission is successful, SpaceX would start in earnest to fulfill the contract. This would make the company the front-runner for the potentially multibillion-dollar job of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station now that NASA’s fleet of space shuttles has been retired.

While nearly everyone's eyes were on the final space shuttle flight in July, SpaceX engineers and technicians at Cape Canaveral, Fla., were readying the rocket that will lift the Dragon capsule into orbit.

The company had planned to dock with the space station this year but ran into delays.

SpaceX makes the Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once housed the fuselage assembly for Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet. The hardware is put on a big rig and sent to Cape Canaveral for launches.

Last December, SpaceX became the first private company to blast a spacecraft into Earth's orbit and have it return intact. Up to that point only five countries and one intergovernmental agency had been able to launch a spacecraft and have it successfully orbit and reenter the Earth's atmosphere.

If its capsule docks with the space station, SpaceX will join an even more exclusive club of the U.S., Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency.

“SpaceX is on the forefront of demonstrating how a partnership between the government and private industry can lead to new capabilities and provide a large return on investment,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA’s program manager for commercial transportation services.

 

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Photo: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is prepared in its hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: Al Diaz / Miami Herald

Iran shows off alleged captured U.S. drone [Video]

Irandrone

The Iranian government allowed television crews to shoot footage of the radar-evading, bat-winged drone the country claims to have hacked into and brought down over the weekend.

In the video, which you can see below, the aircraft looks pristine with barely a scratch on it.

Senior U.S. officials told The Times on Tuesday that the drone lost recently was on a CIA surveillance operation, and that it was unclear whether the drone's mission took it above Iran or whether it may have strayed there accidentally because of technical malfunctions.

The drone, alleged to be the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made RQ-170 Sentinel, has largely been kept a secret by the U.S. government. Little has been disclosed about the Sentinel's capabilities or operational usage. It is known that the cutting-edge drone was developed at Lockheed's famed Skunk Works in Palmdale.

Until now, only grainy and off-center photos of the Sentinel have surfaced.

The video shows Iranian military officials walking around and inspecting the aircraft. If this is the Sentinel, this marks the first occasion that the aircraft has been seen publicly in its entirety.

The Iranian government’s semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that that the captured drone has a wingspan of 85 feet, is nearly 15 feet long, nose-to-tail, and 6 feet tall. These numbers seem to match the specifications estimated by aerospace experts and aviation geeks since photos first of the Sentinel surfaced in 2009 when it was spotted on an airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

For that reason the jet-powered Sentinel is also known as the ”Beast of Kandahar.” It is considered one of the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. Its stealth technology, sophisticated computer systems, and high-powered cameras enable it to penetrate deep into hostile territory for spy missions without detection.

Its utility was demonstrated during the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, where it provided surveillance for the operation.

But whether or not the aircraft in the video is indeed the Sentinel is still in question. Iran's media and government has a history of exaggeration and fabrication.

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit media organization based in London, found that the same Iranian television station that aired Thursday's drone footage “faked” accounts of 1,370 Somali deaths by U.S. drones and has assembled an extensive list of reports about purported drone strikes.

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Firm launches commercial rocket from New Mexico spaceport [Video]

Stig-a-view

Commercial space venture Armadillo Aerospace announced a successful launch of a sleek-sounding rocket from the nation's first commercial spaceport in New Mexico.

On Sunday, the Mesquite, Texas-based start-up blasted its STIG A rocket to an altitude of 124,000 feet above Spaceport America in Las Cruces, N.M.

Take a look at the video below as it climbs into space. An on-board camera gives you the opportunity to take a virtual trip to sub-orbit. (Beware: A trip on a rocket as it spirals into space can be dizzying.)

"This successful test of our STIG A reusable suborbital rocket technology represents major progress for the Armadillo Aerospace flight test program," Neil Milburn, company vice president of program management, said in a statement. "The flight successfully demonstrated many of the technologies that we need for our manned suborbital program."

The rocket carried a scientific experiment meant to study the liquid and gas flow process, which is sensitive to the gravity and acceleration levels encountered during spaceflight. It was designed by team of undergraduate students at Purdue University.

"Spaceport America has been an ideal launch facility for this kind of vehicle," John Carmack, Armadillo’s president and chief technology officer, said in statement.

In October, British billionaire Richard Branson’s commercial space venture, Virgin Galactic, moved into a newly completed terminal and hangar facility at Spaceport America. The company aims to launch paying customers beyond Earth’s confines within two years.

 

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Photo: View of Earth from Armadillo Aerospace's STIG A at 124,000 feet above Spaceport America in New Mexico

Air Force says it's extending mission of mysterious X-37B

X37b

The Air Force is extending the mission of an experimental robotic space plane that’s been circling the Earth for the last nine months.

The pilotless X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle, was launched in March from Cape Canaveral, Fla. At the time, Air Force officials offered few details about the mission, saying that the space plane simply provided a way to test new technologies in space, such as satellite sensors and other components.

The military did confirm that the 29-foot space plane was slated to land 270 days later, which would be Wednesday, on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara. Now the Air Force has announced that the mission has been extended, but the exact landing date has not yet been set.

“We initially planned for a nine-month mission, which we are roughly at now, but we will continue to extend the mission as circumstances allow,” Lt. Col Tom McIntyre, the spacecraft's systems program director, said in a statement. “Keeping the X-37 in orbit will provide us with additional experimentation opportunities and allow us to extract the maximum value out of the mission.”

The X-37B was built in tight secrecy by Boeing Co.'s Space and Intelligence Systems unit in Huntington Beach. Engineering work was done at the company's facilities in Huntington Beach and Seal Beach. Other components were fabricated at its satellite-making plant in El Segundo.

Some industry analysts have theorized that -- because of its clandestine nature -- the X-37B could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling foreign satellites as it circles the globe. The Pentagon has repeatedly said that the space plane is simply a “test bed” for other technologies.

“We are learning new things about the vehicle every day, which makes the mission a very dynamic process,” McIntyre said.

The X-37B now orbiting the Earth is the second launched by the military. The first X-37B was launched in April 2010 and it landed 224 days later on its own -- fully automated -- at Vandenberg.

 

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Photo: The X-37B space plane, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, is hangared at a facility near Cape Canaveral, Fla.. before its launch in March. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Air Force issues potential $7.4 billion contract for F-22 upgrade

Raptor

The Pentagon announced that it awarded a contract worth as much as $7.4 billion to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp. to upgrade the Air Force's fleet of problem-plagued F-22 Raptor fighter jets.

The announcement said that the Bethesda, Md., company would “add new capabilities and enhance the performance" of the aircraft.

Lockheed referred all questions about the contract to the Air Force, which said it could not provide details about the upgrade announced Friday.

The F-22, which cost an estimated $412 million each, is the military’s most expensive fighter jet and known to be its most advanced. Yet the stealthy, supersonic plane has never been used in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other combat zone since it entered service for the military in 2005.

The F-22 has experienced seven major crashes with two fatalities.

Last May, the entire fleet of F-22s was taken out of service after a dozen incidents occurred since April 2008 in which pilots' oxygen was cut off.

After a government safety investigation grounded the jets for more than four months, the Air Force returned all 170 of the F-22s to flight operations in September. The Air Force did not disclose whether engineers had identified the problems with the oxygen system or whether it had been fixed.

About a month after reentering service , several F-22s were temporarily grounded in October after an incident at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

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Photo: Two of the U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptors, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., fly above Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. Credit: Associated Press / U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Courtney Witt

SpaceX looking for 'a commercial Cape Canaveral' launch site

Spacex

Hawthorne-based commercial space venture Space Exploration Technologies Corp. said it is in the hunt for a new launch site to meet increasing demand from commercial customers.

“Our growing launch manifest has led us to look for additional sites. We're considering several states and territories,” Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a statement. “I envision this site functioning like a commercial Cape Canaveral.”

The private company, known better known as SpaceX, named the four states that have active launch sites -- Virginia, California, Alaska and Florida -- for its pursuit.

SpaceX already has a launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where it has two successful test launches of its 18-story Falcon 9 rocket.

The company is developing a new launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, located northwest of Santa Barbara, where it hopes to launch satellites for military and commercial customers.

Ultimately, SpaceX hopes to take over the responsibility of running cargo missions and carrying astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA now that the space shuttle fleet has been retired.

SpaceX had planned to launch its space capsule, named Dragon, and dock it to the International Space Station in a test flight aboard its Falcon 9 rocket this year, but delays will push that launch into next year.

The company makes its capsules and rockets at a sprawling facility in Hawthorne that once housed the fuselage assembly for Boeing Co.'s 747 jumbo jet. It also operates a rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.

 

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Photo: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is prepared in its hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: Al Diaz / Miami Herald

Southland aerospace innovations snag magazine awards

TimeSouthern California's aerospace technology has recently received national recognition.

This week's Time magazine cover features Monrovia-based drone maker AeroVironment Inc.’s Nano Hummingbird as one of the best inventions of 2011. See it at right or here.

The Times wrote in February about the little flying machine that’s built to look like a bird for potential use in spy missions.

Equipped with a camera, the drone can fly at speeds of up to 11 miles per hour, AeroVironment said. It can hover and fly sideways, backward and forward, as well as go clockwise and counterclockwise, by remote control for about eight minutes.

The pocket-size drone also recently received Popular Science magazine’s Best of What's New award and was designated "grand award winner" in the security category.

Another grand award winner -- this time in the aviation & space category -- was Hawthorne- based Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Dragon space capsule.

Last December the company, better known as SpaceX, became the first private company to blast a spacecraft into Earth's orbit and have it return intact. The company wants to take over the responsibility of running cargo missions and possibly carrying astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA now that the space shuttle is retired.

SpaceX has been planning to launch the capsule and dock it to the International Space Station in a test flight aboard its Falcon 9 rocket this year, but delays will push that launch into next year.

The editors of Popular Science also chose Falls Church, Va.-based Northrop Grumman Corp.’s bat-winged experimental drone, the X-47B, to receive a 2011 Best of What's New award in the aviation & space category.

The drone, which resembles a miniature B-2 stealth bomber, is being developed by engineers in El Segundo to take off from an aircraft carrier, fly to an enemy target and then land back on a carrier, all without a pilot. It’s currently in test flight at Edwards Air Force Base.

If you're interested in seeing the award announcements in print, both the Popular Science and Time issues are on newsstands now.

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Image: Cover of Time magazine's Nov. 28 issue. Credit: Time Inc.

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