US Air Force preps classified space plane for launch

Posted by Aharon Etengoff

The United States Air Force (USAF) is preparing to launch a top-secret robotic space plane from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The spacecraft - known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle - will be carried into the depths of space via an Atlas 5 rocket. Although news of the launch has been announced, the vehicle's classified on-orbit tests remained shrouded in secrecy. 

"Well, you can't hide a space launch, so at some point extra security doesn't do you any good," Gary Payton, Air Force deputy under secretary for space systems told Space.com.

"On this flight the main thing we want to emphasize is the vehicle itself, not really, what's going on in the on-orbit phase because the vehicle itself is the piece of news here."

Unsurprisingly, the classified nature of the X-37B's mission has led to speculation that the Orbital Test Vehicle may be a "space version" of the US Predator Drone.

"The 4.9-ton spacecraft - which has a wingspan of 4.27 meters and is 8.84 meters long - will be testing the long-duration ability of reusable space vehicles to stay in space for up to 270 days at an altitude of 200-800 km from earth before making an automatic landing at the Vandenberg Air force Base in California," explained DebkaFile.

"Some space experts are calling its launch the onset of the 'weaponization' or 'militarization' of space. Our military experts describe the X-37B as the first unmanned space craft able to carry out combat missions outside Earth.

The X-37B was originally manufactured by Boeing's Phantom Works Division as NASA X-37. However, the project was eventually shut down to a lack of funding and transferred to the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The USAF officially assumed command of the X-37B in 2006.