X-37 Spaceplane Lands But Purpose Still Clouded

 - December 16, 2010, 5:45 AM
The U.S. Air Force is evaluating the Boeing X-37B as an unmanned orbital test vehicle.

The U.S. Air Force/Boeing X-37B spacecraft returned to earth by landing at Vandenberg AFB in California on December 3. Aside from some damage from space debris and a blown tire on rollout, the 244-day flight was a success, said officials. 

The X-37B is a small Space Shuttle-like spacecraft that is being evaluated as an unmanned orbital test vehicle. It is launched into orbit by an Atlas 5 rocket. The Air Force hopes to load the X-37 with equipment designed for use on satellites and the International Space Station, send it into orbit for up to 270 days of testing, and bring it back again.

The Air Force has been tight-lipped about the program, leading to speculation that the X-37 has been testing new reconnaissance sensors. Others have speculated that the X-37 could carry strike weapons, and thus marks the start of the militarization of space. The Air Force staunchly denies this claim.

Boeing is building the second vehicle, OTV-2, which is slated for the next flight by the middle of next year.