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Now that the X-37B space plane is spotted, what is its mission?

Amateur astronomers say they have found the X-37B in an orbit that takes it over Afghanistan and Iraq. A former Air Force missile officer offers up four possible uses for the space plane – and weapon is least likely.

By Staff writer / May 25, 2010

In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline on March 30 at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla.

US Air Force/Sipa Press/Newscom/File

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Now we know where the X-37B is. Amateur sky-watchers have spotted the Air Force miniature space plane traveling in low-earth orbit at an inclination that takes it over Iraq and Afghanistan, among other nations.

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But this big question remains: What the heck is the X-37B doing up there, anyway?

The Air Force isn’t saying. It’s secret. “The actual on-orbit activities we do classify,” said Gary Payton, Air Force Undersecretary for Space Programs, during a conference call with reporters in late April.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is an unmanned experimental platform that resembles the space shuttle, only smaller. It’s a program that began at NASA in 1999 and then moved to the Pentagon in 2004.

On April 22 an Atlas V rocket roared into the sky from Cape Canaveral, Fla., carrying the X-37B on its first orbital test flight. At that moment the reusable craft vanished, as far as the general public was concerned. The Air Force did not say where in space the X-37B was going.

But last week a team of sky-watchers with members who specialize in tracking orbiting objects announced that they’ve spotted what they are certain is the X-37B in space, about 255 miles up, circling the earth every 90 minutes.

The X-37B is traveling in a an area bounded by 40 degrees north latitude (the mid-Atlantic of the US, Spain, the Middle East) and 40 degrees south latitude (Argentina, South Africa, Australia), according to Greg Roberts, a South African member of the spotting team.

The Air Force says that the performance of the system itself is the biggest thing this launch is testing. They want to see how the X-37B performs in orbit, how it flies itself back to the ground, and how quickly they can get it ready to re-launch. The goal is to be able to turn the X-37B around as fast as the Air Force could turn around a high-performance spy plane such as the SR-71 Blackbird.

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