X-37B: US launches super-secret, orbiting, robotic plane

The X-37B is designed to stay in space as long as nine months and to collect electronic signals of all kinds in a way that other countries can't stop. The Air Force is not commenting on its mission.

John Raoux/AP
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, carrying an X-37B experimental robotic space plane, lifts off from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Tuesday.

The Air Force’s launch this week of its new super-secret robotic plane into orbit is an important new technological step for the US military.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) looks like a mini space shuttle at 29 feet long. It is the third test of the OTV. 

“It’s testing the envelope for this vehicle, and so it’s a big deal in that regard,” says Capt. Nicholas Plante, a spokesman for the US Air Force.

Publicly, the Air Force says that this is a chance to fine-tune “an affordable, reusable space vehicle.”

That is no small feat. In the past, US space “flight” has been less like flying and more akin to billiards, says James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It hasn’t really been flight because in a flight you can maneuver, you can pull on the controls.”

But the X-37B really does more closely resemble space flight. “A maneuverable spacecraft is unique,” says Dr. Lewis. “It’s really hard to do.” 

The aircraft is designed to complete a mission that lasts as long as nine months, according to the Air Force. After that time, the OTV will automatically reenter the atmosphere, and descend and land horizontally on a runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“This mission will further expand the test envelope” of the OTV, and verify that it can demonstrate “repeatability and reliability,” according to an Air Force statement.

The length of the mission indicates that the OTV has a more covert mission as well. There wouldn’t be a need to stay in orbit for months otherwise, Lewis says. “It’s not like it’s just a bus designed to take things into space and bring them back.”

This experiment show that the US can use space “as a platform for sensors that can collect on things in a way other countries really can’t stop,” he adds. 

In the case of the X-37B this likely includes collecting “electronic signals of all kinds,” whether it’s microwave communications or the ability to measure data from a distance. 

“In the case of, say, the recent North Korean missile launch this could include messages going back and forth between the ground control and the missiles, as well as measuring the heat signature and the flight path of the launch. 

“There’s lots of good stuff that you can collect to give you an idea of what the other side is up to,” says Lewis.

These are details that the Air Force will not share. “I can’t go into the details of the mission any further,” says Plante. 

What is clear is that it has long been a goal of NASA to lower the cost of putting things into orbit. “A lot of the time people talk about America losing its lead in space, but a maneuverable spacecraft is unique,” Lewis says. “Now America is doing something no one else can do.”

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