Feeds

Second US 'secret space warplane' now in orbit

Military minishuttle's mystery mission

Intelligent flash storage arrays

The second X-37B "secret space warplane" operated by the US military has successfully reached orbit at the beginning of a classified mission, whose intent and duration remain unknown.

The second X-37B is enclosed in its fairing prior to launch. Credit: Boeing

At the spaceplane-in-a-tin factory

The X-37B is a small unmanned space plane with a cargo bay said to be about the same size as that of a pickup truck. It is launched into space inside a fairing atop a normal launch stack, and on arrival in orbit deploys a solar array allowing a protracted mission (a Space Shuttle, which carried a crew and used fuel cells for power, could not stay up unassisted nearly as long).

The little spaceplane features a powerful engine allowing it to change orbit as desired – and the fact that it is reusable means that its operators are less constrained to save fuel in order to prolong lifespan as they would be with a normal satellite.

Having completed its mysterious mission, the X-37B furls its solar array, closes its payload bay and re-enters the atmosphere, gliding down to land autonomously on a runway just like the Shuttle, but without benefit of any human input. Like the shuttle it has delta-shaped wings which would seem to offer the same "cross-range" capability that the US military insisted upon for the bigger spaceplane: a capability intended for top-secret intelligence missions which would be extremely difficult for other nations to monitor – though in the event the Shuttle never actually flew such missions.

The initial X-37B mission lifted off in April last year and stayed in orbit for eight months before making a successful landing at the Vandenberg military space base in California.

According to a release issued by X-37B maker Boeing at the weekend, the second X-37B has now lifted off successfully from Cape Canaveral airforce station, taking off on Saturday at 5:46pm local time.

US airforce officials in charge of the project emphasise that the X-37B has many relatively humdrum uses. It furnishes a way of getting new technologies, or ones suddenly in demand, into space quickly: rather than building a custom satellite to carry, say, a new sensor, you simply slot it into an X-37B and send it up. The little spaceplane also offers a relatively inexpensive way of carrying out tests of new kit which offers some risk of not working: if the new gadget doesn't pan out, you don't need to write off a pricey satellite – and the original gear can be tweaked, rather than you having to build a whole new rig should you want to try your idea again.

But details of missions are kept secret and the X-37B is funded from the "black" classified budget. Furthermore if a reusable plug-in satellite was all that was required, it seems reasonable to suggest that it wouldn't need shuttle-style delta wings. If runway landing were preferred to capsule/parachute re-entry, a lifting body or stub wings would be more efficient.

Given all of this, then, people such as us here on the Reg aerospace desk will continue to speculate on more exciting missions for the X-37B until we hear from an authoritative source that these are not happening. ®

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
SECRET U.S. 'SPACE WARPLANE' set to return from SPY MISSION
Robot minishuttle X-37B returns after almost 2 years in orbit
LOHAN crash lands on CNN
Overflies Die Welt en route to lively US news vid
Experts brand LOHAN's squeaky-clean box
Phytosanitary treatment renders Vulture 2 crate fit for export
Carry On Cosmonaut: Willful Child is a poor taste Star Trek parody
Cringeworthy, crude and crass jokes abound in Steven Erikson’s sci-fi debut
White LED lies: It's great, but Nobel physics prize-winning great?
How artificial lighting could offer an artificial promise
Origins of SEXUAL INTERCOURSE fished out of SCOTTISH LAKE
Fossil find proves it first happened 385 million years ago
America's super-secret X-37B plane returns to Earth after nearly TWO YEARS aloft
674 days in space for US Air Force's mystery orbital vehicle
NASA eyeballs SOLAR HEAT BOMBS, MINI-TORNADOES and NANOFLARES on Sun
Astro boffins probe fiery star's hidden depths
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why cloud backup?
Combining the latest advancements in disk-based backup with secure, integrated, cloud technologies offer organizations fast and assured recovery of their critical enterprise data.
Win a year’s supply of chocolate
There is no techie angle to this competition so we're not going to pretend there is, but everyone loves chocolate so who cares.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.