SPACE WEAPONS
Secret Space Craft
Boeing X-37B Space Plane
22 April 3 December 2010
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X-37B being prepared for launch - Image: US Air Force
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility April 13, 2010, in Titusville, Florida. Air Force officials are scheduled to launch the X-37B April 21, 2010, at Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida. The X-37B is the U.S.'s newest and most advanced unmanned re-entry spacecraft.

Star Wars 2010? 
U.S. military launch space plane on maiden voyage... but its mission is top secret
By Mail Foreign Service 23rd April 2010

A top secret space plane developed by the US military has blasted off from Cape Canaveral on its maiden voyage. Billed as a small shuttle, the unmanned X-37B heralds the next generation of space exploration. It will be the first craft to carry out an autonomous re-entry in the history of the US programme.

But its mission - and its cost - remain shrouded in secrecy. The Air Force said the launch was a success but would give no further details. However, experts have said the spacecraft was intended to speed up development of combat-support systems and weapons systems. There have already been accusations that the programme could lead to the 'weaponisation' of space.

Speaking after the launch, Air Force deputy under-secretary for space systems Gary Payton, admitted it was impossible to hide a space launch but was cagey about the what exactly the X-37B would do.

'On this flight the main thing we want to emphasise 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,' he said. He refuted claims that the craft was a step towards military dominance in space. 

'I don't know how this could be called weaponisation of space,' he said. 'It's just an updated version of the Space Shuttle type of activities in space. We, the Air Force, have a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better.'

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle took a decade to develop and will spend up to nine months in orbit. It will re-enter Earth on autopilot and land, just like an ordinary plane, at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
The decision on when it returns to Earth is dependant on the Air Force are satisfied with the tasks it has been set to carry out in space.

'In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back for sure,' Mr Payton said. 'It depends on the progress we make with the on-orbit experiments and the on-orbit demonstrations.'

When it is time for the plane to come back down, commanders will send out a message which will make it re-enter orbit. It will then navigate its way back to the air force base.

While in orbit the spacecraft will conduct a number of classified experiments the results of which will be brought back to Earth for analysis. The military has not revealed what those experiments will entail.

Mr Payton said the Air Force's main interest is to test the craft's automated flight control system and learn about the cost of turning it around for launch again.

The X-37B is 9m long (29ft) and has a wingspan of 4.5m (15ft), making it a quarter of the size of a normal Shuttle. It is powered by a solar cells and lithium-ion batteries, unlike a traditional craft which is powered by a fuel cell system. It has a large engine at the rear for orbit changing. The space plane is also reusable.

Built by Boeing's Phantom Works division, the X-37 program was originally headed by Nasa. It was later handed over to the Pentagon's research and development arm and then to a secretive Air Force unit. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the project, but the true total has not been revealed.

The Air Force has given a very general description of the mission objectives: testing of guidance, navigation, control, thermal protection and autonomous operation in orbit, re-entry and landing. While the massive Space Shuttles have been likened to cargo-hauling trucks, the X-37B is more like a sports car, with the equivalent trunk capacity.

Dr Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of national security and decision making at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, told the BBC the launch was something of an experiment for the military.

'It might be at this point in time that (the US Air Force is) going to roll the dice and see if something good happens,' she said. 'If it does, they'll continue with it. Otherwise, this will be another one of those projects that goes into a bin somewhere.'

She claimed the US military had wanted a craft with the ability to loiter in space for some time.

'If it lives up to its speculated hype, it could be a manoeuvrable satellite,' she said. 'You could move it to, for example, hover over the straits of Taiwan and it could evade attempts to shoot it down. It could do a lot of things that up until this point have been mostly fiction.'

A second experimental plane is already on order and is due to launch in 2011.

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The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility April 2010, in Titusville, Fla. Air Force officials are scheduled to launch the X-37B April 21, 2010, at Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla. The X-37B is the U.S.'s newest and most advanced unmanned re-entry spacecraft. (Courtesy US Air Force)

SOURCE: Daily Mail UK

Related Links:

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Internal setup
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Branson's White Knight carries the X37 aloft for a test flight
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The X-37A (ALTV) Orbital Test Vehicle on the runway. Photo: Alan Radecki
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The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on the runway. (Credit: Boeing)
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Image: US Air Force
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Image: NASA/EPA
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Artist concept of the X-37 advanced technology flight demonstrator re-entering Earth's atmosphere. The X-37 will be a testbed for dozens of advanced structural, propulsion and operational technologies that could dramatically lower the cost of future reusable launch vehicles. The X-37 will operate in both the orbital and reenty phases of flight. The X-37 measures approximately 27.5 feet (8.3 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 meters) in wingspan. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the X-37 project. The X-37 industry team is led by The Boeing Co. of Seal Beach, Calif. Credit: NASA/Marshall
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An artist's conception of the X-37 Advanced Technology Demonstrator as it glides to a landing on earth. Its design features a rounded fuselage topped by an experiment bay; short, double delta wings (like those of the Shuttle orbiter); and two stabilizers (that form a V-shape) at the rear of the vehicle. 1999 Image: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center
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X-37A (ALTV) Photo: Rod Davis, Boeing
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X-37A (ALTV) Photo: Rod Davis, Boeing
United Launch Alliance's Atlas V
rocket launches a USAF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.
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On Launchpad at Cape Kennedy
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Ignition
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Lift-Off - United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket launches the USAF's newest reusable satellite, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle from Complex 41 at 7:52 PM from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 22, 2010. The X-37B is considered as a mini-space shuttle with the most advanced technologies. The automated spaceplane is nearly 30 feet long and weighs 11,000 pounds. Once operational, the vehicle will conduct classified orbital missions for the US military. This first reusable unmanned spacecraft will spend undisclosed periods in orbit and return to earth and land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.. UPI/Joe Marino-Bill Cantrell
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Lift off: The X-37B sits on top of an Atlas V rocket as it's launched at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida
Landing
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X-37B at Vandenberg Air Force base
The X-37B sits on the Vandenberg Air Force base runway during post-landing operations Dec. 3. Personnel in SCAPE (Self-contained atmospheric protective ensemble) suits conduct initial checks on the vehicle and ensuring the area is safe. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Michael Stonecypher)
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X-37B at Vandenberg Air Force base  (U.S. Air Force photo/ Michael Stonecypher)
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X-37B at Vandenberg Air Force base  (U.S. Air Force photo/ Michael Stonecypher)
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X-37B at Vandenberg Air Force base
The X-37B sits on the Vandenberg Air Force base runway during post-landing operations Dec. 3. The X-37B, named Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1), conducted on-orbit experiments for more than 220 days during its maiden voyage. It fired its orbital maneuver engine in low-earth orbit to perform an autonomous reentry before landing. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Michael Stonecypher)
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X-37B at Vandenberg Air Force base
The X-37B sits on the Vandenberg Air Force base runway during post-landing operations Dec. 3. The X-37Bs de-orbit and landing mark the transition from the on-orbit demonstration phase to a refurbishment phase for the program. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Michael Stonecypher)
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X-37B at Vandenberg Air Force base
The X-37B, named Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1), sits on the Vandenberg Air Force base runway during post-landing operations Dec. 3. The Air Force is preparing to launch the next X-37B, OTV-2, in Spring 2011 aboard an Atlas V booster. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Michael Stonecypher)
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X-37B at Vandenberg Air Force base  (U.S. Air Force photo/ Michael Stonecypher)
X-40A Space Maneuver Vehicle
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Photo: Jim Ross, NASA
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Photo: Tom Tschida, NASA
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