The X-37B, the Air Force’s top secret, unmanned reusable space plane, has quietly returned to Earth at an air strip at Vandenberg Air Force Base after a 220-day mission in low Earth orbit, the nature of which has yet to be explained.
The X-37B was launched by an Atlas 5 on April 22, 2010. The space plane is about 29 feet long and has a payload pay the size of a typical pickup truck bed. It weighs 11,000 pounds and has a wingspan of about 15 feet. It is unknown if the X-37B was carrying anything in its cargo bay.
The Air Force insists that the X-37B is merely a flying laboratory, designed to test certain technologies that it desires to have for space operations. But that has not allayed speculation among space and military analysts.
For example, amateur astronomers have noted the plane doing at least four course corrections during its seven-month flight. That suggests the space plane is the prototype for a vehicle that could rendezvous with the satellites of other countries and, in time of war, capture or even destroy them.
Other possible use for an operational space plane based on X-37B would be the quick delivery of a low Earth orbit reconnaissance satellite, if one were needed to cover a certain area in a hurry, or if an existing satellite were destroyed during wartime. China tested a satellite killer a few years ago, so such a capability would be useful.
Another possibility would be a quick strike at a high-valued target of opportunity anywhere in the world. If the order were given to destroy, say, an Iranian nuclear facility, a space plane might be used to deliver a conventional ballistic warhead from the continental United States within two or three hours of the go-ahead, depending on how quickly the vehicle could be launched.
In any event, the Air Force is so pleased with the test that it has ordered construction of a second vehicle. In the meantime, the original X-37B will be checked out and, if easily made space-worthy, will be launched again for a second test flight sometime in the spring of 2011. If the vehicle can be turned around easily for a second flight, that too would indicate a new capability for the Air Force. As Wired explains:
“After all, one of the advantages of airplane-style spacecraft is their reusability. Lacking disposable stages like a rocket capsule, they don’t have to be pieced back together post-mission. Just check out the electronics and the plumbing, inspect the skin for cracks and, in theory, you’ve got a spaceworthy vehicle.”
Sources: Unmanned US spacecraft returns after 7-month trip, AP, December 3rd, 2010
US Air Force Launches X-37B Space Plane, Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, April 22nd, 2010
Secret Space Plane Finally Lands; Twin Preps for Launch, David Axe, Wired, December 3rd, 2010