Air Force's Mysterious Space Plane Launches

Illustration for article titled Air Force's Mysterious Space Plane Launches

That's the Air Force's super-secret unmanned X-37B space plane hitching a ride on an Atlas V rocket yesterday. No one knows what its mission is. Or even when it's coming back.


The rumors about the X-37B have been building for a few years now, ever since the project came under the auspices of the Department of Defense—and became classified—in 2004. Is it for intelligence gathering? Will it be weaponized? Or is it nothing more than orbital delivery truck? From the Air Force's official description of the program:

"A flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment. This service directly supports the Defense Department's technology risk-reduction efforts for new satellite systems. By providing an ‘on-orbit laboratory' test environment, it will prove new technology and components before those technologies are committed to operational satellite programs."

Which is not entirely helpful.

The X37B, co-developed by Boeing, is just 29 feet long and can stay in orbit for up to nine months, so it could be some time before we see it again. For now, the main objective seems to be if the Air Force can successfully retrieve it in good enough condition to re-use. And, you know, to test out the antimatter ray. [Wired]



I saw coverage of this on CNN this morning. Both the DoD correspondent and the anchor kept commenting on how this was "cool". I think a strong military is necessary, but since when did it become "cool" to spend taxpayer money with zero accountability on projects that may or may not set a horrible precedent of weaponizing space? And even if this is benign, the fact that it could be perceived by China or Russia as a first step in a space arms race is troublesome enough. But both members of the venerable fourth estate seemed content with the Pentagon talking points of "nothing to see here, folks!" and asked zero serious questions about what this is, why we have it, how much it costs, or what the implications are for the messages it sends to other countries.

I know I am getting a bit off topic, but every time some "journalist" starts geeking out on military hardware, I am reminded of how normal militarism has become, and how disturbing that is.