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Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral on Sunday
The Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral on Sunday (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)

The US Military just launched its mysterious X-37B space plane again. What is it?

PortandTerminal.com, May 18, 2020

X-37B is a classified programme and very little is known about it. This is what we think we know.

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – The United States military has re-launched a top-secret autonomous craft into orbit around Earth. This is the sixth time the craft has been sent into space.

The X-37B ‘space plane’ was launched atop an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral to commence its sixth mission in space.

The small plane is capable of staying aloft for hundreds of days at a time and is controlled remotely from Earth. The five previous X-37B missions racked up a combined 2,865 days in orbit, or about 7 years and 10 months of off-Earth technology testing.

On October 27, 2019, the X-37B landed at Kennedy Space Center after spending a record 780 days in orbit.

The plane’s mission remains ‘classified’ and the Pentagon still won’t say much about what it’s going to do up there.

Rocket. X37B encapsulated in its fairing
X37B encapsulated in its fairing

‘This X-37B mission will host more experiments than any other prior missions,’ Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said.

In a previous statement, the US Air Force has explained the X-37B enables the US to ‘efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain.’ Not much on specifics was shared.

The X-37B was built by Boeing and the programme started back in 1999. The plane itself looks like a smaller version of the manned space shuttles that were retired in 2011.

The aircraft has a wingspan of less than 15ft and its small size is part of what makes it so hard to detect.

During the aircraft’s previous missions, amateur astronomers were able to detect the orbital pattern of the first X-37B which included flyovers of North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, heightening the suspicion that the vehicle was being used for surveillance.

Infographic showing rocket

Speculation about the X-37B

Space shuttle type craft in space
The secrecy surrounding the X-37B has led to some speculation that the vehicle is some sort of space weapon,

Although the Air Force has disclosed some of the payloads that have flown to orbit on the X-37B, most of the space plane’s onboard gear is classified, as are the details of its orbital activities.

This secrecy has led to some speculation that the vehicle is some sort of space weapon, perhaps one designed to take out or capture satellites. However, the Air Force has always denied this notion, insisting that the X-37B is just testing out technologies for future spacecraft, and carrying various experiments up to space and back. Some of these technologies being tested may be sensors and other equipment for future spy satellites, outside experts have said.

Back in January 2012, allegations were made that the X-37B was being used to spy on China’s Tiangong-1 space station module. Former U.S. Air Force orbital analyst Brian Weeden later refuted this claim, emphasizing that the different orbits of the two spacecraft precluded any practical surveillance flybys.

We know that in the upcoming mission, known as OTV-6 (short for “Orbital Test Vehicle-6”) and Space Force-7, will also deploy FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy that itself carries five separate experiments. 

It has been reported that the aircraft, also known as an Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), will deploy a satellite and test power-beaming technology. Power beaming is the process by which power is transferred by beams of electromagnetic radiation, like microwaves or laser beams – basically sending electricity through the air.

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