The United States Air Force (USAF) has launched a secret space plane into orbit, carried in the nose of an Atlas 5 rocket. The USAF is not calling the X-37B a weapon or anything else, and the classified mission was broadcast live, but only for several minutes into the flight. The plane, built by Boeing, was originally part of a NASA programme but was later abandoned and turned over to a secretive USAF unit. There are no details on how much it costs or when it is coming back to earth, but when it does return the unmanned craft will land itself, using the onboard autopilot.
There's an 80 percent chance of good weather to launch the X-37B space plane. But what it will actually do in space and when it will autonomously fly itself back down to Earth remain a mystery. The Air Force would like to keep it that way. At least for now. "Well, you can't hide a space launch, so at some point extra security doesn't do you any good," said Gary Payton, Air Force deputy under secretary for space systems, in a Tuesday teleconference with reporters. [X-37B spacecraft photos.] "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 said.
The on-orbit tests, Payton said, are classified like many Air Force projects in space to protect the nature of the X-37B's "actual experimental payloads."
But the X-37B is designed to stay in space on missions that last up to 270 days long.
For this first test flight, the Air Force wants to see if the X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, can actually launch into space, open its payload bay and deploy a set of solar panels to keep it powered for months at a time. This demonstration flight is also aimed at testing the X-37B spacecraft's ability to fly itself back to Earth and land on a runway at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1 was built by Boeing's Phantom Works division in Seal Beach, Calif. It is about 29 feet (9 meters) long and has a wingspan of just over 14 feet (4 meters) across. It stands just over 9 1/2 feet (3 meters) tall and weighs nearly 11,000 pounds (4,989 kg).
The military has been looking into the idea of an orbital space platform for decades. And the X-37 program itself has been around for quite a while. Built by Boeing’s Phantom Works division in the mid 1990s, it was first developed for NASA as a reusable space vehicle that could be carried to orbit either inside the space shuttle or using a booster rocket. The unmanned X-37 would then orbit for a period of time before launching or retrieving a payload and return to earth.
The program was transferred to the Department of Defense in 2004. Since that time the X-37 has become a classified program, raising questions as to whether or not it would become the first operational military space plane. During the 1960s, the Air Force and Boeing conducted research on the X-20 Dyna-Soar space plane. After initial development, much of it with then test pilot Neil Armstrong, the Dyna-Soar was canceled in 1963.
A vehicle such as the X-37 could be a valuable platform for intelligence gathering with the advantage of a satellite’s point of view, but the flexibility of an aircraft that can be launched relatively quickly and maneuvered in orbit much easier than a traditional satellite.
With the lack of specificity expected from a classified program, and without a translator, the Air Force described the X-37B program as “a flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment. This service directly supports the Defense Department’s technology risk-reduction efforts for new satellite systems. By providing an ‘on-orbit laboratory’ test environment, it will prove new technology and components before those technologies are committed to operational satellite programs.”
Once the current mission is over, the miniature unmanned space shuttle will be inspected to determine if it is a truly reusable vehicle. A new generation of protective tiles, similar to those that plagued early shuttle flights will be examined as well as the autonomous flight control systems that pilot the space craft. The other key component to the program, the overall time needed to prepare the X-37 for another flight, will also be closely watched. The goal is to have it flight ready again in 15 days.