With the launch Thursday of the X-37B spacecraft aboard an Atlas V rocket, the U.S. Air Force is taking a page from NASA's space shuttle program.
Looking somewhat like a traditional shuttle but at roughly one-quarter the size, the unmanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle took off for its maiden space voyage from Cape Canaveral in Florida and reached a low earth orbit late in the day. The X-37B is intended to serve as a platform for experiments and to offer insights on transporting satellite sensors and other equipment to and from space.
"If these technologies on the vehicle prove to be as good as we estimate, it will make our access to space more responsive, perhaps cheaper, and push us in the vector toward being able to react to warfighter needs more quickly," said Gary Payton, the Air Force deputy undersecretary for space programs, in a statement on the Air Force Web site.
Does that cryptic reference to "warfighter needs" signal the dawn of a new era of space weaponry? That probably remains some distance off in the future. The Pentagon is still in the very early days, for instance, of sorting out how to use directed-energy gear such as its lone Airborne Laser prototype. And certainly there are plenty of non-weaponized resources for the military in orbit, such as GPS and reconnaissance satellites, that a space plane could service.
As part of this initial mission, the Air Force will evaluate the X-37B's guidance, navigation, thermal protection, and unmanned operations in orbit, re-entry, and landing. It will function in space like other satellites, with operators on Earth monitoring its travels. Eventually, the Air Force will tell the space plane to head home. "Upon being given the command to return to Earth, the X-37B will automatically descend through the atmosphere and land on the designated runway. There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it," said Lt. Col. Troy Giese, the X-37B systems program director, in a statement.
Though the 11,000-pound vehicle--about 29 feet long, with a wingspan of just under 15 feet--is designed to stay in orbit for 270 days, the exact duration of its first flight hasn't been revealed. Upon completing its first mission, the Boeing-built X-37B is due to touch down at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The resemblance to the space shuttle isn't surprising. The X-37, in fact, was originally a NASA program, with roots in the space agency's lifting-body research, that ran from 1999 to 2004. That effort was intended to help in the design and development of a new Orbital Space Plane that would serve as a transport and rescue vehicle for crews at the International Space Station.
With NASA's fleet of space shuttles due to be retired later this year, the Air Force has been searching for a new class of vehicles to take over the role of reusable space plane. But the X-37B has a ways to go before it's fully fledged.
"There is much to learn in the first few flights on the technologies used on this vehicle, how quickly it can be readied for a re-flight, and on the operational utility," David Hamilton, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. "We have started discussions with Air Force Space Command [officials] to plan for the possibility for transition to an operational capability, but the system first must prove its utility and cost effectiveness during the test program."