X-37B space plane returns intact from mysterious military mission

x-37 b military space plane

The X-37B military space plane is a robotic vehicle that some people believe may become an orbiting weapons platform. Image: CC USAF/Wikimedia Commons

The X-37B is an unmanned military spaceship that looks and flies like a space shuttle’s baby brother. After 225 days in orbit on a mysterious mission, the X-37B came back to Earth Friday. The Air Force claims the X-37B is a flying laboratory, but some speculate that the orbiter could be used to destroy or hijack enemy satellites.

The x-37B robotic orbiter

Streaking through at atmosphere at hypersonic speed, the X-37B space plane touched down at Vandenberg Air Force base, Calif., in the wee hours under cover of darkness. The X-37B mission marks the first time a U.S. robotic vehicle has returned to Earth from space. The X-37B was blasted into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Fla., April 22 aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. Unlike the Predator drones used in Iraq and Afghanistan, the X-37B has no remote operator. On command, it automatically dropped through the atmosphere and glided to a landing at 300 mph. The Air Force was mum about the specifics of the X-37B’s maiden flight, but said the mission “completed all the on-orbit objectives.”

The x-37B mission

It is assumed that the X-37B’s maiden flight was a test of its guidance and navigation systems, as well as its heat resistance upon re-entry. The unmanned orbiter is about 25 percent of the size of a space shuttle. It has a shuttle-like payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. A powerful engine allows the spacecraft to change orbit quickly, which made it difficult for sky watchers to track after the mission was blacked out by the Air Force shortly after launch. At that time the Air Force said the X-37B would make “access to space more responsive, perhaps cheaper, and push us in the vector toward being able to react to warfighter needs more quickly.”

x-37B: flying lab or satellite killer?

Conjecture about possible uses for the X-37B abound. The spacefaring robot could either carry scientific instruments or weapons in its payload bay. Its maneuverability could be used to service U.S. military satellites or take out satellites from other countries. The x-37B could be a platform for the Pentagon’s airborne laser weapon system, which successfully destroyed a missile in flight aboard a modified Boeing 747 last February. The X-37B is being prepared for a return to space and Boeing is building another that will launch next spring.

Sources

Wired

CNET

Spaceflight Now

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