The Air Force's Secretive Space Plane Just Launched Again

The U.S. Air Force’s unmanned X-37B shot off into space for the fourth time today. The extreme secrecy shrouding all three previous missions have fueled plenty of conspiracy theories. But for once, we actually have some inkling of what the X-37B will do.

Before the launch, officials actually revealed two of the experiments onboard, which you can read about in our prior coverage below. What else is there? That’s classified, of course. General John Hyten of the Air Force Space Command told 60 Minutes the plane is “really for cool things,” so take that as you will.

[via Quartz]

Top photo of the launch via ULA/Twitter

The Air Force's Mysterious Space Plane is Going Into Orbit Again

If all goes well, the U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B will blast off into space for the fourth time on May 20. But for the first time, they’re actually telling us what the space plane will be doing—well, some of it anyway.

The Air Force currently has two of the X-37B planes, which look like miniature versions of NASA’s space shuttle. Altogether, they’ve gone on three missions that lasted a total of 1,367 days in space. The last mission ended after 674 days in orbit last October. What the space planes were doing all the time is anyone’s guess.

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But the Department of Defense has made the unprecedented step of releasing some details of this upcoming flight. We now know, for example, that they will test a new orbital thruster system that could be used to maneuver satellites in space. The Hall thruster electric propulsion system, made by Aerojet Rocktdyn, use electricity and xenon and could be used to develop agile new satellites.

Last week, NASA also announced the details of materials science research that will happen on the X-37B. The plane will carry over 100 different materials to test how they hold up in space. This experiment, called Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS), will gather data for materials that could be used in future probes, telescopes, and space craft.

Anything else though? Well, they aren’t telling us.

[CBS News, NASA]

Top photo: The X-37B being launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in December 2012. Credit: U.S. Air Force


Contact the author at sarah@gizmodo.com.