April 14, 2014 - The X-37B, the U.S. Air Forces secret robotic space plane, has now been in orbit for almost 500 days, a record-breaking time period for space endurance. The latest version of the relatively tiny spacecraft, which is just one quarter of the size of the space shuttles, was launched in December 2012 on a top-secret mission.
The X-37B has a payload bay approximately the size of a pickup truck bed, and it is thought to be carrying highly sensitive cargo. It began its life as a NASA project to build a small, unmanned space plane, then the project was passed over to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2004. A lack of funds prompted a further handover to the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which is continuing to manage the X-37B program.
The unmanned spacecraft can remain in orbit for much longer than the original Space Shuttles, which were limited by the requirements of the crew on board to short missions of up to 17 days.
The first X-37B launched, OTV-1, was able to orbit for 225 days; its sister plane OTV-2 doubled that time by staying in space for 469 days. Now the latest X-37B has already exceeded its predecessors and there is no indication that its mission is at an end.
So what is it doing up there?
Despite its record stay in space, no details have been released about its mission, or when it might return. The U.S. Air Force is happy to comment on the space drone as a technological achievement, but refuses to elaborate on its purpose.Consequently, rumors are rife, but the official line is that the X-37B is merely an experimental platform for "operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth."
Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer with the Space Commands Joint Space Operations Center and now at the Secure World Foundation, believes that the X-37B is primarily a test bed for new technologies.