For more than 650 days, the Pentagon has been flying a secretive, unmanned space plane around the Earth, but it won't acknowledge much about its top-secret mission.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle looks much like a smaller model of NASA's space shuttle, and all the Pentagon will admit is that it is used to conduct technological experiments, reports The New York Post
There are plenty of theories about the space plane, which launched on its current mission on Dec. 11, 2012, including that it could be a space bomber or even an orbiting space bomber.
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Intelligence experts say the X-37B carries classified satellites and classified sensors into space, which NASA used to do when its space shuttle missions were still flying during the 1980s and '90s.
However, the X-37B means the Pentagon will no longer need NASA or even human-manned spacecraft to take its payloads into space.
The space plane measures in at only about 10 feet tall and 30 feet long, making it much smaller than the shuttles it resembles. It also is boosted into orbit with an external rocket, but lands just like a conventional airplane.
The mystery, though, is what's being carried in the craft's cargo bay, which is about the size of a pickup truck's bed, reports The Post.
Back in 2010, when the X-37B was launched into space for the first time, a senior Air Force official insisted it was "just an updated version of the space shuttle type of activities in space."
After several years of public development, the plane went into classified status in 2009, and satellite spotters started speculating about what its true purpose was. The Air Force has been working for decades to create a true space plane, but costs and technologies have proven to be too difficult.
The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on the goal again with the Experimental Space Plane project, called XS-1 for short, and is funding several companies to work on it.
As for now, the X-37B's mission is continuing.
"The Air Force continues to push the envelope of the solar-powered X-37B capabilities," Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., told Space.com
The plane can stay in space for long periods of time, said Johnson-Freese, because it uses solar panels to generate its power.
"While far above the longevity of any other reusable spacecraft, it is far below that of most U.S. satellites, which are built to last for years, even decades," Johnson-Freese said. "That certainly confirms the broad, officially stated goal of the X-37B as a test-bed vehicle."
Other than that, its mission will likely remain classified, despite a looming executive order
planned by President Barack Obama to require federal agencies such as the Pentagon, the Justice Department, and the Department of Homeland Security, among others, to reveal details about the activities of their drone fleets.
The executive order would not cover the military's classified missions, the Obama administration has said.
Before he retired as commander of the Air Force Space Command this year, Gen. William Shelton told Space.com that he would not be releasing more information about the X-37B.
"I'll give you my standard line on X-37," Shelton told Space.com during an interview at the National Space Foundation's 30th Space Symposium in May. "X-37 is doing great. I can't tell you what it's doing, but it's doing great."
In addition, Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems, which supplies the Air Force's two X-37B space plane models, told Space.com that there was nothing it could share about the current mission.
Space missions still remain vital to the military's interests, Shelton told the Atlantic Council
"Space forces are foundational to every military operation, from humanitarian to major combat operations," he said. "It really doesn't matter — space has to be there . . . [satellites must be] continuously deployed in place, providing communications, missile warning, navigation, space surveillance and weather services."
In addition, space traffic is getting more busy, said Shelton, who acknowledged that the U.S. Air Force Space Command is considering more missions.
"We're watching carefully as other nations significantly increase their investment in counter-space programs," Shelton said. "We absolutely must adjust our approach and response, and the time for those decisions is approaching very rapidly."
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