Known as USA-240, the military’s secret X-37B robotic space plane has been in orbit for more than two months and its mission is “unknown and ongoing”.
In an article in space.com, author Leonard David reports that “The U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane is quietly chalking up mileage in space more than two months after its latest launch into orbit.”
The X-37B looks like a mini-space shuttle, being only 29 feet long by 15 feet wide, and its cargo hold is “about the size of a pickup truck bed,” according to David. “Only two X-37B space planes have been constructed for the Air Force by Boeing Government Space Systems. Flights of the space plane are conducted under the auspices of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.”
It is believed that the X-37B may be a prototype for a “…reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force.” Control of the robotic space plane is “handled by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, 21st Space Wing, of the Air Force Space Command, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.”
This latest mission is actually the “third classified mission under the Air Force’s X-37B program” says David. Originally launched into space on December 11th, it is unknown how long the plane will remain in orbit. A news blackout occurred within 17 minutes of the launch in December, and no additional news about the plane has been forthcoming from the military.
“The mission is ongoing,” Air Force Major Eric Badger, a spokesman for the X-37B program, told SPACE.com. “As with previous missions, the actual duration will depend on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance and conditions at the landing facility.”
The plane had its maiden voyage in 2010, and its first mission “lasted nearly 225 days in orbit and then zoomed back to Earth on autopilot over the Pacific Ocean, gliding down onto a specially prepared runway at Vandenberg AFB in California,” says David. A second X-37B robotic plane was used during the second mission last year, which lasted 469 days.
Although little is known about what the secret space plane may be carrying in its hold, there has been speculation. Ted Molczan, “a leader in an ever-vigilant, worldwide satellite sleuthing network,” told SPACE.com that he believes “unlike the first two missions, its ground track does not closely repeat at the frequent intervals that would suggest an imaging reconnaissance mission.”
Jonathan McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told the Huffington Post last December (after the X-37B’s launch) that he thinks “the space plane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a test bed for future satellites.” He went on to say that “on-board sensors could be capable of imaging or intercepting transmissions of electronic emissions from terrorist training sites in Afghanistan or other hot spots.” McDowell admitted, however, that he did not know what the plane was carrying.
“It might be studying Middle Eastern latitudes or it might just be used for sensor tests over the United States,” he said.
The X-37B program dates back to 1999, and is oriented towards space “experimentation.” While being able to re-launch and reuse a space plane on short notice is indeed major progress, other space scientists aren’t as impressed.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is criticizing the military’s program as “a less-than-cost-effective way to conduct space activities,” says David. The UCS scientists believe “there are better, more efficient and more cost-effective ways of carrying out the X-37B’s possible missions.”
Speculation and concern aside, this latest mission of the X-37B represents the first re-flight of a space vehicle outside of the space shuttle program—a major step forward towards our movement into space.