At 1:03 p.m. eastern time on Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Air Force launched an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rocket’s cargo, a small shuttle called the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, is an autonomous spacecraft that’s been under development by the U.S. government for over a decade –though very few people know exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Depending on who you ask, speculation on the X-37B’s purpose ranges from an orbital fighter plane meant to destroy enemy satellites; a bomber capable of dropping nukes from outer space; a giant spy camera array; or just a simple science project, meant to prove the viability of a new generation of reusable spacecraft.
The U.S. government freely acknowledges the existence of the orbiter, but is deliberately vague about its purpose: “The focus of the program remains on testing vehicle capabilities and proving the utility and cost-effectiveness of a reusable spacecraft,” Air Force spokeswoman Tracy Bunko told Reuters before today’s launch.
What we do know for sure is that X-37B is about 29 feet long with a wingspan of 15 feet, about a quarter of the size of NASA’s now retired space shuttles. It’s solar powered and can remain in orbit for a year or more. And there’s no crew –it’s completely autonomous, capable of completing its mission and even returning to Earth and landing on its own.
The X-37B is the result of a quasi-secret program, started in 1999 by NASA, Boeing and the Air Force, but later transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Since taking over in 2004, DARPA has kept the vehicles development and budget under wraps.
This is the third flight of the Orbital Test Vehicle; the same ship circled earth for 224 days beginning in 2010, and a sister ship blasted off in 2011 and spent 469 days in space. Both shuttles were built by Boeing’s advanced R&D division, Boeing Phantom Works, based in Huntington Beach, California.
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