A top secret U.S. Air Force space plane rocketed into orbit Wednesday, carrying a full load of technology experiments and secret missions. The launch happened early Wednesday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The unmanned mini-shuttle rode atop an Atlas V rocket, the workhorse of the U.S. Air Force.
This marks the fourth flight for the military program, which is heavily classified. The last X-37B mission lasted 674 days and ended with a California landing. No details about the mission were released, although amateur astronomers noticed radical orbit changes of the vehicle, indicating that it may be a tool to hunt and kill Chinese satellites.
In typical top secret fashion the Air Force will not disclose how long this particular mission will last or where it will end.
The X-37B resembles a miniature version of the space shuttle. It is 29 feet long and its wingspan is about 15 feet. Overall it is about one quarter the size of NASA's space shuttle.
The Boeing-built X-37B launches vertically and lands horizontally, is reusable, and has a cargo bay for experiments. The vehicle if operated robotically, with no humans aboard.
Referred to innocuously as OTV, or orbital test vehicle — it has a materials-sample experiment on board for NASA, and an experimental electric-propulsion thruster for the Air Force. While some say the most intriguing payload is a solar-sail demo sponsored by the Planetary Society, the most interesting publicly known cargo is the new thruster.
Such a thruster requires considerably less liquid propellant than previous designs which would enable more ability to move around while in orbit. Such movement is not particularly useful for satellites but would be a key feature in a hunter killer space drone designed to disable enemy satellites. Radical orbit changes, of the kind needed to take of enemy spacecraft, require lots of fuel using present systems and means that with current technology it would be expensive to disable an enemy's fleet.
The new thruster system would mean spacecraft that could take out many enemy satellites from one launched vehicle, like the X-37B, which would make it far cheaper and faster to accomplish.
China, no doubt, will be watching the vehicle's activity in space rather closely.