Secret Space Plane Set to Launch on Mystery Mission Today

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Author: David Axe

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After a delay of nearly two months owing to a technical glitch, the Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane is set to blast off again from Cape Canaveral, Florida, atop an Atlas rocket on Tuesday.

The launch, if successful, will commence the third mission in three years for the robotic X-37 fleet, assembled in Boeing’s now-shuttered Building 31 in Huntington Beach, California, for an estimated $1 billion apiece. But for all the time spent in orbit by the two school bus-size spacecraft — 693 days in all — it’s no more clear today precisely what the Air Force has been up to with the X-37s.

Officially, the solar- and battery-powered X-37s are strictly experimental craft, meant to “demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform” while also “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” according to the Air Force.

“Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit,” is how Gary Payton, Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, explained the X-37′s mission. “They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works, then bring it all back home and inspect it to see what was really going on in space.”

But the Air Force has consistently declined to state exactly what those experiments might be. And in theory the X-37s could also carry spy sensors or gear for hacking enemy satellites. That and the lack of specific information has elicited protests from the Chinese government, which has vowed to build a space plane of its own.

The opacity also makes a mockery of the State Department’s international campaign for greater space transparency. Just last week in Vietnam, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Frank Rose quoted former U.N. head Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

“To avoid conflicts based on misperceptions and mistrust, it is imperative that we promote transparency and other confidence-building measures — in armaments, in threatening technologies, in space and elsewhere,” Rose said.

Some observers question the space plane’s official story. “Because it is an Air Force project and details about it are classified, and because it does not have a clear mission compared to simpler systems, this project has generated confusion, speculation and in some cases concern about its purpose,” the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts-based think tank, stated in a November fact sheet.

The concern could be warranted. The X-37B is a scaled-up version of NASA’s X-37A, abandoned by the space agency in 2004. Able to deliver small payloads from its pickup truck bed-size bay, nimbly maneuver across orbits and automatically land like an airplane once its fuel reserves are depleted, the X-37B is essentially a miniature edition of NASA’s Space Shuttle, retired 18 months ago after three decades of service.

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