A secret military spacecraft is set to blast off from Cape Canaveral this week, this time with an assist from private industry. If all goes well, the X-37B will blast off from the Kennedy Space Center on September 7th on a SpaceX Falcon rocket. The space plane, which is smaller than a city bus, will carry classified military cargo.
The was conceived as a cost-effective alternative to the Space Shuttle. The spacecraft, which appears similar to the shuttle that inspired it, rides into space atop a space launch vehicle rocket and glides back down to Earth to land on a conventional runway. The missions are run on the ground by 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.
This will be the fifth flight for the X-37B and the first X-37B launch performed by SpaceX. Previous flights have been managed by United Launch Alliance, a consortium consisting of Lockheed Martin and Boeing Defense. The SpaceX , which is parked on the Cape's Pad 39A, performed a static test late last week briefly firing all nine Merlin engines to ensure engine reliability.
The X-37B is just 29 feet, three inches long with a wingspan of 14 feet eleven inches. It weighs five tons at launch and has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck's bed. The spacecraft is known for spending extremely long durations in space, with the fourth and latest flight lasting 718 days—a record breaking duration for a returnable spacecraft.
X-37B mission payloads are classified, but experts believe they are used to test new military space satellite technologies including , and optical and radar-based sensors designed to spy on objects on the ground or other satellites. The recoverable nature of the X-37B allows scientists and engineers to return the technology to Earth, improving it before sending it permanently into space.
The unmanned space plane has been the subject of a number of theories, from it being a secret space bomber to a vehicle designed to kidnap the satellites of other countries, returning them for research. While the X-37B does tend to fly over countries such as Iraq, Pakistan, and North Korea, it likely does so to test onboard image sensors. The spacecraft is very visible in space, with amateur satellite cataloguers . Soon it will be back in orbit for them to watch again.