24 Apr 2010

X-37B military spyplane launches from Cape Canaveral

A drone-like spyplane, developed for the US military, has been launched into orbit from Florida.

The X-37B, which has been likened to a scaled-down space shuttle, blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 1952 EDT (2352 GMT) on Thursday.

For all (military) intents and purposes, this spacecraft appears to be but the next step to the militarisation of space.
The X-37B started life in 1999 as a US space agency programme, but Nasa handed the project over to the Pentagon in September 2004. As such, the Air Force is in a position to talk openly about the craft's design, but its purpose remains classified.
Dr Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of national security and decision making at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, said the military would be waiting to see if this project yielded new capabilities: "It might be at this point in time that [the US Air Force is] going to roll the dice and see if something good happens.


Dr Johnson-Freese said that one way in which the spaceplane could potentially be used was as a "manoeuvrable satellite".
She said that conventional satellites were vulnerable to missile systems because they followed predictable paths in orbit and were relatively easy to spot. The X-37B could evade attempts to shoot it down with anti-satellite (A-sat) weapons.
And if enemy forces know when spy satellites are due to fly over their territory, they can limit sensitive activities to times when there are no passes by reconnaissance spacecraft. The X-37B could spring a surprise by virtue of its manoeuvrability.
The programme is now led by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (AFRCO).
Edwards Air Force Base, also in California, has been designated as the vehicle's back-up landing facility. The Soviet Union carried out an autonomous re-entry and landing with its Buran space shuttle in 1988.

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