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The X-37B space plane is reportedly on a top secret surveillance mission for the U.S. Air Force.  (Source: U.S. Air Force)

The X-51A missile is designed to hit targets at hypersonic speeds without being confused with a nuclear warhead.  (Source: U.S. Air Force)

The X-51A hypersonic missile will take flight tomorrow.  (Source: U.S. Air Force)
The Air Force's latest toy appears not to be a weapon of destruction, but rather one of intelligence

The Space Shuttle may be dead, but the Air Force is looking to pick up the slack.  Last month they launched their secret space plane, the X-37B, from a base from Florida.  The spacecraft is currently on the first part of a top secret nine month mission that will end with a soft landing in California.

So is the X-37B the Air Force's first foray into creating the world's first starfighter?  Absolutely, not says the Air Force.  Gary E. Payton, under secretary of the Air Force for space programs says that the plane carries "no offensive capabilities."  He states, "The program supports technology risk reduction, experimentation and operational concept development."

These claims seem to be supported by new data from amateur star watchers.  Ted Molczan, a member of a skywatching team in Toronto, was among those who spotted the secret craft and analyzed its course.  They found that like the Space Shuttle, it flew at a pretty typical altitude of 255 miles above the Earth's surface and circled the Earth every 90 minutes.  Its course takes it as far north as 40 degrees latitude, just below New York City.

The interesting thing that Molczan noted was that the craft was passed the same point exactly every four days -- a typical format followed by spy satellites.  And its trajectory took it past interesting locations, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea.  Thus Molczan and other amateur observers are saying that the Air Force is probably being honest about the craft's lack of weapons, and it's probably testing high tech surveillance equipment.

If the X-37B indeed does 
not hold space weapons, fans of high-tech weapons can soften their disappointment with the news that the X-51A Waverider hypersonic missile will conduct its first test flight tomorrow.

The new missile is designed to have a unique profile from traditional ICBMs, to prevent nuclear powers like China and Russia from mistaking the missile for a nuclear warhead.  The missile is to be launched from a B-52 Stratofortress bomber.

The almost wingless craft will use atmospheric oxygen to burn a mix of ethylene and JP-7 fuel initially, before transitioning to pure JP-7 fuel.   This is different that previous attempts, such as the X-43A, which used hydrogen fuel.  By ditching the need for hydrogen the hypersonic platform becomes more promising logistically.  The new platform employs a bleeding edge Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne SJY61 scramjet engine and also employs advanced thermal protections.

The missile will climb 70,000 feet before descending at speeds in excess of Mach 6.  Four test vehicles currently exist -- there are no plans of recovering the missile after the initial test.  The hope is that it will keep transmitting data though until impact.





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