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Pentagon’s secret X-37B plane breaks space longevity record

Published time: March 28, 2014 18:02
This NASA image shows an artist's rendition of the X-37B as it might look like orbiting Earth. (AFP Photo / NASA)

This NASA image shows an artist's rendition of the X-37B as it might look like orbiting Earth. (AFP Photo / NASA)

One of the US Air Force’s most mysterious projects – an unmanned space-faring plane – has broken its own longevity record by staying in orbit for more than 469 days.

There aren’t many details floating around in public regarding the X-37B – a classified project that’s seen three launches into space thus far – but a new report by the IDG News Service suggests the plane is being used to test out the Air Force’s new space capabilities while also boosting the intelligence community’s surveillance capacity.

Launched back in December 2012, the Boeing-designed X-37B has been floating above the Earth ever since. The plane looks like a smaller cousin to NASA’s past space shuttle models, and has been designed with quick turn-around times in mind, so that it can easily be re-launched after landing.

Although few people know exactly what the vehicle is intended for, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told IDG it seems clear one of the big features is the plane’s ability to stay in space for extended periods of time.

“The Air Force now has a policy of acquiring capabilities rather than missions, so some general somewhere probably thinks it would be spiffy to have a space plane that can launch at short notice,” he said. “It’s worthwhile learning lessons from the shuttle and how to do turn-arounds cheaper.”

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline during testing at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Florida in this U.S. Air Force handout photo dated March 30, 2010.(Reuters / U.S. Air Force)

The fact that the project is clouded in secrecy hasn’t stopped people from speculating on its goals, however.

Before the X-37B’s first launch, officials told the Christian Science Monitor that it would conduct various experiments” involving the transport of “satellite sensors, subsystems, components, and associated technology” into space and back to Earth.

“I believe it’s testing some kind of experimental sensor for the National Reconnaissance Office; for example, a hyperspectral imager, or some new kind of signals intelligence package,” McDowell said to IDG. “The sensor was more successful than expected, so the payload customer asked the X-37 folks to keep the spacecraft in orbit longer.”

John Pike, the global director of a national security research organization called, also raised the possibility in 2010 that the plane could one day be used to spy on China as a “maneuverable satellite” that could avoid being shot down.

Meanwhile, an NBC report from 2012 speculated, “The satellite can see through night and through bad weather, which means that it can also zoom in to 'countries of interest' with great detail, like a Google Earth on serious Cold War steroids.”

But while the X-37B could give the US military impressive new capabilities, Chris Hellman of the watchdog group National Priorities Project acknowledged to the Monitor it could also be a worrisome development.

“I can see where the prospect of having half a dozen of these things with unknown payloads circling overhead could be very troubling to people,” he said.

Technicians conduct post-landing operations on the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California in this U.S. Air Force handout photo dated December 3, 2010.(Reuters / U.S. Air Force)

Comments (21)


Jim Smith 27.05.2014 19:22

The X37B is what it is. The protron rocket is what it is.

Its all about militarization of space, and the US is the ruler.

When (and if) Russia and get one of their space weapons in space (which I doubt), then Russia can shoot down an X37B and blow up our rockets. Until the, Russia is the loser and US is the winner. Now shut up, go have some vodka and relax.


Jim Smith 27.05.2014 19:19

Andy Li 28.03.2014 18:47

Does anyone believe the US's claims about its own tech? Given how stupid and fat its populace is?


American has about 50 million fat and stupid people, another 50 million elderly or young, but don't mess with the other 170 million of us because Americans all love a good fight.


Yi Jiun 11.04.2014 00:30

Harsányi Tamás 29.03.2014 08:37

You may have right with the fat and stupid populace. But they are cheap sh_t. Their mass rallies and demos won't touch the "chosen few", because they will have the funds to pay skilled brains from Asia/EU for themselves.


Very true...If only China, India and Eastern Europe could better retain their talents. But, over time, the ever enlarging top-bottom disparity in the US will cast serious doubt on the long term sustainability of her system.

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