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Scientists ready the X-37B unmanned orbital vehicle. The U.S. Air Force is using the space plane for unknown purposes.  (Source: EPA)

The X-37B sat in a silo earlier today.  (Source: EPA)

As evening set, the super-high tech craft launched in about as stealthy fashion is possible when using an Atlas V rocket.  (Source: EPA)

A rendering shows what the X-37B might look like in orbit.  (Source: EPA)
Is the X-37B the future of space flight? Maybe, but the Air Force sure isn't saying

The X-37B's curious tale began in 1999 when NASA contracted Boeing's Phantom Works (Calif.) division to build an unmanned space airplane.  The project was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in September, 2004.  The NASA X-37A was redesigned in 2006 by a secret U.S. Air Force research unit, completing the current design, dubbed the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).

The craft was recently completed and has a 4.5 meter wingspan with a length of 8.9 meters.  It comes equipped with kerosene and hydrogen peroxide fuel tanks, an experimental bay, a large navigation "brain", and likely other more secret components.

Thursday night the OTV hurled into space in what appeared to be a clean launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  The X-37B OTV was carried on an Atlas V rocket, a relatively inexpensive rocket that has an extremely reliable track record.

What's it doing in space?  Your guess is as good as anyone else's.  And guesses tend to range from "deploying spy satellites" to "maintaining spy satellites".

Speaking to reporters, Gary Payton, Air Force deputy under secretary for space systems, confessed that there was indeed a secretive launch.  He comments, "Well, you can't hide a space launch, so at some point extra security doesn't do you any good."

The OTV will remain in orbit for nine months and then will make a landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.  So is it doing something with spy satellites?  Payton would only guardedly remark, "On this flight the main thing we want to emphasize is the vehicle itself, not really, what's going on in the on-orbit phase because the vehicle itself is the piece of news here."

Payton didn't exact make any bold predictions of success either.  He comments, "In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back for sure.  It depends on the progress we make with the on-orbit experiments and the on-orbit demonstrations."

The X-37B project is the culmination of undisclosed hundreds millions in defense spending.  Will all that investment be worth it?  Only a select handful of Air Force and government officials will be privy to the knowledge to make that assessment.

If there's one thing that's one clear about the X-37B project, it's that it aims to take a different approach to space exploration and utilization.  And it makes it clear that the U.S. isn't ready to relinquish its domination of space quite yet.

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RE: Redundant
By bigbrent88 on 4/23/2010 11:45:05 AM , Rating: 2
Could it capture other nations satellites, maybe do recon on active sats and bring in decommissioned ones?

RE: Redundant
By wiz220 on 4/23/2010 11:54:14 AM , Rating: 2
Indeed, that could be the goal.

RE: Redundant
By porkpie on 4/23/2010 2:07:10 PM , Rating: 4
Why would you want to bring in a decommissioned satellite? Far cheaper to simply deorbit it. As far as capturing an opponent's satellite; the US isn't going to learn anything interesting from a Chinese or Russian satellite, and there are much easier and more effective ways of simply taking them offline.

RE: Redundant
By bigbrent88 on 4/23/2010 2:28:29 PM , Rating: 2
So basically this is an offensive weapon? There is no other purpose for this thing to be flying around, unless it has to do with opponents satellites.

RE: Redundant
By porkpie on 4/23/2010 2:50:23 PM , Rating: 2
Once its orbital parameters become public (probably in a few days), I'll surmise what I think its for. Equatorial? Orange-slice polar? Highly eccentric? You can tell quite a bit about a mission by what shape orbit its placed in.

Right now it could be anything from a testbed for THOR or a space-based energy weapon, to an reconnaissance platform intended for ultralow insertions in which a normal satellite would decay too rapidly.

RE: Redundant
By delphinus100 on 4/23/2010 2:56:23 PM , Rating: 2
Would those nations not notice?

Especially as:

We have a history of trying to recover other people's lost military assets (Glomar Explorer) and...

There doesn't appear to be anything particularly stealthy about the X-37 (nothing B-2ish in its shape, and such a shape and radar absorbent materials are probably not compatible with re-entry aerodynamics and heating), so it could well be tracked by radar.

If you observed it approaching one of your birds, well...

RE: Redundant
By porkpie on 4/23/2010 3:18:04 PM , Rating: 1
Radar? In NEO, you could easily observe it with a strong pair of binoculars. And if you can match orbits, you don't need something like this to take out a satellite ... a loose bolt or two will do the job much easier and more thoroughly.

The only way this could conceivably be meant to attack enemy satellites is via some form of directed energy weapon...but even here, I think the benefits of a ground based platform would far outweigh what you'd save in atmospheric losses from this approach.

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