Air Force's X-37B Launches into Orbit for Top Secret Mission
April 23, 2010 7:14 AM
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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.
The X-37B sat in a silo earlier today.
As evening set, the super-high tech craft launched in about as stealthy fashion is possible when using an Atlas V rocket.
A rendering shows what the X-37B might look like in orbit.
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
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
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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4/25/2010 1:35:32 PM
It's cute but not that impressive. It would be the first orbital "X-Plane" and a partial realization of the program goals of the X-20 Dynasoar which was conceived more than fifty years ago. The AF may have taken the X-37 program over to assuage what must have been immense frustration on the part of AF brass at having their space ambitions thwarted for so many years while a larger program would invite too much attention. It appears to be an assemblage of off-the-shelf technology and probably not anything more than a capability demonstrator. It's boosted by a big, expensive, expendable launcher inside a big, fat aerodynamic shroud so doesn't advance technology in any way in that respect. The only unique capability it would seem to have is to potentially retrieve something which was not originally intended to be recovered given the eventuality that the Shuttle won't be available. That and the fact that it is designed to stay on orbit for up to nine months is intriguing. For the first flight it would seem that the AF would want to demonstrate the ability to re-enter and return to a planned location at an early opportunity so the statement about not knowing when it will come back seems just a nicer way to say it's classified. Wonder if it will make a distinctive double sonic boom like the Shuttle returning? Readers in the Southwest U.S., listen up! It should be reminiscent of the mystery sonic booms of the early nineties.
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