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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: Impressive
By nafhan on 4/23/2010 1:30:15 PM , Rating: 1
Hmmm, I don't think wondering if a USAF project could be used in a weapons system is much of a conspiracy. :) The spacecraft itself is obviously not a weapon, but it would make an effective weapons delivery or reconnisance platform.
Anyway, if they were just testing if it could fly, they wouldn't leave it up there for nine months; it would go up, do a few orbits, and land. I also doubt they need 9 months to test the computers as most (not all) of that has already been done much more cheaply and safely on the ground.
My guess is that whatever they are eventually planning for this thing, it will likely involve extended time in orbit.

RE: Impressive
By Seemonkeyscanfly on 4/23/2010 2:11:42 PM , Rating: 4
"I also doubt they need 9 months to test the computers as most (not all) of that has already been done much more cheaply and safely on the ground."

Lab testing and real world testing can be and often are two different things. They got it to work in the lab now they must see if it will work in real world. Since it cost XXX dollars to launch it into space you might as well run every test several times... then run them again after it has been up there for a long time. The goal to have the same result. If they vary to much you have issues.

RE: Impressive
By nikolasboole on 4/23/2010 9:35:57 PM , Rating: 2
Considering that the x37b is a highly maneuverable space plane, I'm guessing that its main purpose for being in space right now is to get a good grasp of its operational ability, how well it meets its requirements, and where it needs improvement before moving on to a less experimental design phase. Looking at the extensive heat shielding and the upward curve of the bow, (compared to the shuttle, with a relatively flat belly and heat shielding only suitable for reentry) I would assume that the x37 is going to spend a lot more time grazing along the upper atmosphere. Drawing on the canceled DynaSoar spaceplane project, a mission goal is possibly to skip along the atmosphere, allowing for a low-velocity low-earth orbit. It looks like it could be a big step in space flight. It uses a relatively inexpensive launch platform able to stay up for extended periods despite also being able to handle a fair amount of atmospheric friction (while still reentering slowly enough that it needs no visible shielding on the leading edge of the ruddervators) so it will probably spend most of its time in higher orbits, which isn't surprising given how much of the plane seems to be taken up by its fuel and compact engine.
So... I'd guess it's being put through a range of likely flight scenarios- changing course, skipping on the atmosphere in DynaSoar fashion, and probably navigating too and from other satellites under automatic control (similar to its automatic landing sequence). I'd assume that it has a payload of test equipment, so with no crew or robotic arm, it won't do too much interacting with the satelites (at best it might couple with a satellite to modify the satellite's orbit). It'll certianly run through a number of different orbits. Not a very threatening plane, and with a payload of test equipment, I doubt there's any room left for weapony or reconnaissance gear. Pretty cool thing, I think.

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