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USAF's Little X-37B Space Shuttle: More Military Than NASA's


The fuss about NASA's future and the end of the Space Shuttle overshadowed one fact: NASA's not the biggest space agency in the U.S. The military is test-launching its own tiny space plane today, in fact, and it's damn creepy.

The vehicle in question is the X-37B. The "X" gives away its experimental status, the "B" is a reference to the fact the original X-37 was a Boeing/NASA technology testbed that actually underwent basic automatic in-atmosphere unpowered flight testing with the help of Scaled Composite's famous White Knight aircraft (part of the X-prize-winning SpaceShipOne program.) But other than that we know precious little about what the X-37B will be doing while its up there in space, apart from what we can glean from the project's history.

shuttleThe X-37B is due to be the military's first spaceplane, as foretold in all those glorious black-and-white illustrations in science mags from the 1950s, although no steely-eyed missile men will be aboard, as it's unmanned. Today's scheduled launch, atop a big Delta V rocket, is actually coming at the behest of the USAF, and various government agencies including DARPA. It's designated an "orbital test vehicle" so this is actually much more elaborate than a simple pop-gun trip into space and back on a ballistic trajectory. The little shuttle-esque craft will instead go into low earth orbit, stay there for over 270 days (nine months) and then automatically re-enter, manage its atmospheric deceleration by itself, and bring itself into a safe landing. While up there in the darkness and vacuum it'll busy itself doing "various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components, and associated technology to be transported into space and back" according to the USAF.

Does that sound eerie to you? If not, then it should. Some are seeing this launch as one of the first attempts to properly weaponize space vehicles. And the little 27-foot long space plane is ideal for all sorts of mischievousness: Just ponder what sort of payload could be neatly stored inside, shot into orbit, and then commanded to enter the atmosphere at 25 times the speed of sound before effecting a "landing" somewhere on Earth. It may also serve as a powerful orbital delivery system for satellites (of the spying kind) and may even be able to recover small orbiting objects before bringing them back to the ground safely.

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