The Air Force will launch its mysterious orbital space drone for yet another mission on On May 20th, although the precise details of the mission are still secret.
The X-37B space plane, launched from Cape Canaveral, will head into low earth orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket for an undisclosed amount of times. While in space, the X-37B will carry out two public missions, in addition to top secret work. The missions will be for the Air Force and NASA.
The drone will publicly test a "new super-efficient propulsion system" for the Air Force known as a Hall thruster. It will also carry samples of various materials for NASA in order to study how well they respond to conditions in space.
The Hall thruster is a cutting edge electronic propulsion system which creates thrust by ionizing Xenon gas.
This system generates less power than a typical rocket but is significantly smaller and has much better fuel economy than a conventional rocket engine. This allows the X-37B to carry out more advanced maneuvers in space compared to other orbital vehicles.
Such maneuvers could be useful to, say, take out an enemy satellite. Or, given the X-37B has a cargo bay, capture an enemy satellite and return it to earth.
Previous missions of the space plane, while classified, have involved radical orbit changes which seem to have no other purpose other than to capture or destroy enemy satellites. China, as we covered earlier this week, is also working on these type of systems. It's logical to conclude that the U.S. Air Force is doing the same.
The next launch for the X-37B will be the space craft's fourth trip into space. All previous missions have been classified.