Air Force to Launch Secret Space Plane Tomorrow–But Don't Ask What It's For

By Smriti Rao | April 21, 2010 5:12 pm

0420-air-force-X37BWhen it comes to keeping secrets, the U.S. Air Force knows how to stay mum. On Thursday, the Air Force will launch its secret space plane, the unmanned X-37B aircraft, from Cape Canaveral. The project has been a decade in the works and cost millions of dollars to develop–but we civilians have little idea what it’s for.

Once launched via an Atlas V rocket, the plane is expected to spend days or weeks orbiting Earth and performing classified experiments before landing back in California. If successful, the launch will fulfill the Defense Department’s long-time dream: the orbital flight of a military vehicle that combines an airplane’s agility with a spacecraft’s capacity to travel in orbit at 5 miles per second [Popular Mechanics].

The project itself has had an interesting past. It was begun by NASA in 1999 but was later adopted by the Defense Department, and was first placed under the auspices of DARPA before finally finding a home with the Air Force. The Air Force immediately threw the X-37B behind a veil of secrecy, leading some experts to speculate that this could be the military’s attempt to weaponize the final frontier. There are also concerns that the mysterious project could set off an orbital arms race with countries like China.

The 29-foot-long delta-wing spacecraft looks like a miniature version of a space shuttle. The unmanned X-37B is capable of cruising around the globe for more than nine months at a stretch, experts say, keeping close tabs on targets below and monitoring the space above. Its small size and simplicity are great assets to the military, because they’ll allow for the aircraft’s quick deployment in emergencies. Theresa Hitchens, a space policy expert and director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research says the X-37B might be intended to be an orbital first responder. “The first thing that comes to mind is a pop-up reconnaissance vehicle for a place where you don’t have satellite reconnaissance or can’t move a satellite fast enough” [Popular Mechanics], she says.

Though the air force has been mum about the space plane’s potential uses, experts speculate it could conceivably be used as a bomber. The craft could fly over targets within an hour of launch to release cone-shaped re-entry vehicles that would both protect and guide weapons through the atmosphere. A craft the size of the X-37B could carry 1000- or 2000-pound re-entry vehicles armed with precision munitions like bunker-busting penetrators or small-diameter bombs, or simply use the explosive impact of kinetic rods cratering at hypersonic speeds to destroy targets. [Popular Mechanics].

When the first X-37B returns to Earth, scientists will determine how many of its components survived the flight and how long it will take to get the craft back into the air. The shorter the turnaround time, the better, since that would mean fewer X-37s would have to be built, regardless of its ultimate mission [The Christian Science Monitor]. For now, the Air Force is simply preparing for tomorrow’s launch and refusing to spill the beans on the space plane’s potential uses. But the military seems optimistic about this long-delayed program; Air Force officials have admitted that they have a second X-37B in the works, which they hope to take out for a test flight by 2011.

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Image: U.S. Air Force

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Brian Too

    I think we now know where the cast-off space shuttles are going. No wonder NASA is keen to end the shuttle flights!

    Buy one slightly used shuttle, get the second one (of equal or lesser value) for half price!

    Now the wings and tail rudder can be altered with a hacksaw, I get that. How though do you shrink the whole vehicle? Leave it in the rain a while and then dry on high?

  • Stew

    To Brian:
    The idea to end the shuttle program and move to something else was the proposition put forth by President Bush after the Columbia disaster. If you read the proposals from the Augustine Commission last year and if you paid any attention at all to the open forums that were held by the Augustine commission, those within the NASA manned space flight community were not eager to end the shuttle program. Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut, actually proposed a rather detailed plan to the Augustine commission to keep the shuttle program alive so NASA would not be dependent on Russia alone for access to the ISS. The overall sentiment of the retirement of the shuttle program was one with uncertainty and concern–certainly not eagerness.

  • Gotcha Lookin

    USA has always wanted a ground-to-orbit capability for the close examination of unidentified orbiting objects: The 1960’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory and DynaSoar projects may have been canceled, but the need was well recognized as far back as the late 194o’s when early radar echoes from near earth orbit were received from objects not launched into space by humans.

    X-37B is a great technical capability demonstration that is well overdue with respect to schedule and budget. It marks the beginning of the USAF’s role as US Space Marshal which we will need to protect commercial opportunities and the lives of citizens working in the High Frontier.

    Any similarity to the James Bond “You Only Live Twice” caper is only due to the imagination of the consulting Hughes Aircraft engineers whose projects have continued at Boeing Space, Raytheon, Northrup, and Lockheed Martin.

    Remember – satellite TV is not just a privilege: It’s your opportunity as citizen to help protect the skies over your home from stealth aircraft and spacecraft. The more satellite TV receivers plugged into the network, the better the country’s ability to detect and report unscheduled flyovers.

    Satellite TV is yet another radar technology brought to you by Hughes Aircraft, designed with broadband capacity to handle simultaneous video feeds from combat videocams anywhere in the world, on the ground, at sea, in the air, and in space, and still let you watch “Dancing with the Stars” and live sports events. And very soon, all of that in 3D HDTV. Enjoy!

  • Wendy

    Why is it okay for the US to launch secret s*** into space, but not okay when North Korea does it?

    [Moderator’s note: Edited the cuss word.]

  • Brian Too

    2. Stew,


  • cordell


    Maybe because North Korea is a rouge nation and would love to take us out!

    Really Wendy?

  • Mr. Curious

    Re: Maybe because North Korea is a rouge nation and would love to take us out!
    Not only is it a rouge communist nation, it’s also a rogue nation!

    Seriously, folks, I’m extremely frightened by the advent of the X-37 and its obvious application as a “high ground” weapon. Recall how crazed things got when the U.S. realized the implications of Russian nuclear weapons in Cuba, just ninety miles offshore. What is likely to be the response from any and all nations when they know that there’s a sword of Damocles just a hundred miles overhead? The weaponization of space is wrong wrong wrong.

  • m


    and yet, we let Google earth take pictures of our streets, homes, factories, schools, etc for everyone to see. Everyone such as child predators, terrorists, theives, and on and on.

    you’ve seen them! those fancy cars with all the cameras on them.

    and you are uncomfortable with just 1 plane??

  • John Burton

    There was a time when it was exciting to learn of such advances. Now it makes my stomach turn as we divert the wealth of a great nation to warfare. When we are out of Iraq and Afghanistan you can rest assured that the powers in government/industry will find another place to stir up something. It is bankrupting our nation and pissing off the entire world with us staying every place we go. Like the Roman Empire, I think we might be approaching the brink.

  • workfromhomescams

    Oh snap!


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