The X-37B space plane: Things that go bump in the night

The X-37B’s true purpose remains a U.S. government secret.

The U.S. Air Force X-37B spaceplane returns to Earth.

WASHINGTON, May 8, 2017 — Floridians were jarred awake Sunday morning by a loud sonic boom. The culprit was the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned and reusable X-37B, which reentered Earth’s atmosphere before landing – on autopilot – at the Kennedy Space Center.

The vehicle, which is a scaled-down version of the decommissioned Space Shuttle, returned to Florida’s Space Coast following a two-year mission in Earth orbit.

The craft’s true purpose remains a government secret.

The U.S. Air Force has two such vehicles in its arsenal. They operate under the auspices of the Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), whose stated purpose is the “development and fielding of select Department of Defense combat support and weapon systems” involved in “sensitive activities.”

According to the RCO, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory has partnered with the Air Force to develop “technology that enables the nation to meet the challenges of an increasingly congested and contested space environment” and develop “systems to detect, track, and identify man-made satellites.”

All that vagueness is to be expected for military research programs. Oddly, the Air Force has been more than forthright when divulging the specifics about its spaceplane:

  • The X-37B weighs 11,000 lbs.
  • Is 29 feet long.
  • Is nearly 10 feet tall.
  • Has a wingspan of 15 feet.
  • Contains a payload bay the equivalent to that of a pickup truck.
  • Is lifted into Earth orbit by an Atlas V rocket.

Popular aviation journals suggest the U.S. Air Force spaceplane is testing small, low-orbital and maneuverable spy satellites capable of capturing images in much higher resolutions.

But the Russians are less than convinced the X-37B is a mere platform for spy satellites. Anatoly Sitnov, who once procured armaments for the Russian military, told the Russian website Sputnik,

“Who owns space owns the world. When we tried to test laser weapons in space we were told that the militarization of outer space must not occur and we stopped, but the United States has started and continues to test these weapons even today.”

And China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency insists the American experimental spaceplane is “a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling enemy satellites as it circles the globe.”

The rogues of this world have reason to worry.

Predator drone fires Hellfire missile.

In late 2001, several weeks into America’s invasion of Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced that jihadist leaders were killed while meeting outside the city of Kabul. They were taken out by Hellfire missiles fired from an unmanned Predator drone remotely piloted from a trailer parked outside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Mohammed Atef, military chief for al Qaeda and son-in-law to Osama Bin Laden, was counted among the dead.

The drone was originally designed to help U.S. and NATO forces in Europe defend against the overwhelming superiority of Warsaw Pact and Soviet tank forces arrayed against them.

It appears America’s military may soon add space-based drones to the nation’s reinvigorated arsenal, extending its reach against the worried rogues of our little blue planet.

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