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Is the X-37B a prelude to space warfare?

The X-37B, A U.S. Air Force space raises concerns about weapons in space. While its exact purpose remains unclear, it joins a host of new space technology that could usher in a new era of space warfare.

By Jeremy HsuSPACE.com Contributor / May 10, 2010

This undated file image released by the U.S. Air Force shows the X-37B spacecraft, an unmanned space plane. The Pentagon's forays into earth's orbit have raised concerns about space warfare.

U.S. Air Force/AP/File

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A U.S. Air Force space plane and a failed hypersonic glider tested by the Pentagon represent the latest space missions to raise concerns about weapons in space. But while their exact purpose remains murky, they join a host of new space technology tests that could eventually bring the battlefield into space.

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Some space technology demonstrations are more obviously space weapons, such as the anti-satellite missile capabilities tested by the U.S. and China in recent years. India has also begun developing its own anti-satellite program which would combine lasers and an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle, as announced at the beginning of 2010.

The U.S. military and others have also long developed and deployed more neutral space assets such as rockets and satellites for military purposes. In that sense, both the Air Force's X-37B robotic space plane and the HTV-2 hypersonic glider prototype of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) could represent similarly ambiguous technologies which may or may not lead to weapons.

IN PICTURES: The X-37 Space plane

"Space has been militarized since before NASA was even created," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a space policy analyst at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. Yet she sees weaponization as a different issue from militarization because "so much space technology is dual use" in terms of having both civilian and military purposes, as well as offensive or defensive use.

Such uncertainty regarding space technology can make it tricky for nations to gauge the purpose or intentions behind new prototypes, including the X-37B space plane or the HTV-2 hypersonic glider.

The U.S. military could even be using the cloak of mystery to deliberately bamboozle and confuse rival militaries, according to John Pike, a military and security analyst who runs GlobalSecurity.org. He suggested that the X-37B and HTV-2 projects could represent the tip of a space weapons program hidden within the Pentagon's secret "black budget," or they might be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

The devil is in the details

Many existing space technologies play dual roles in both military and civilian life.

The Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system which started out as military-only has since become common in consumer smartphones and car navigation systems. Modern rocketry grew in part from the technology and scientific minds behind Nazi Germany's V-2 rockets of World War II, and continued to evolve alongside ballistic missile technology.

Even something as basic as a satellite image can be used for either military weapons targeting or civilian crop rotation, Johnson-Freese said. Space plane technology can seem equally ambiguous — the Air Force deputy undersecretary of space programs scoffed at the notion of X-37B paving the way for future space weapons.