U.S. 30ft Spaceship is Loaded and Ready in Orbit

Times Online

Somewhere above earth is America’s latest spaceship, a 30ft craft so classified that the Pentagon will not divulge its mission nor howX37B much it cost to build.

The mysterious X37B, launched successfully by the US Air Force from Cape Canaveral on Thursday, using an Atlas V rocket, looks like a mini-Space Shuttle — but its mission is top secret.

It is officially described as an orbital test vehicle. However, one of its potential uses appears to be to launch a surge of small satellites during periods of high international tension. This would enable America to have eyes and ears orbiting above any potential troublespot in the world.

The X37B can stay in orbit for up to 270 days, whereas the Shuttle can last only 16 days. This will provide the US with the ability to carry out experiments for long periods, including the testing of new laser weapon systems. This would bring accusations that the launch of X37B, and a second vehicle planned for later this year, could lead to the militarisation of space.

US defence officials, who would not say how much the project had cost, insisted, however, that it was “just an updated version of the Space Shuttle activities”.

Thursday’s launch was more about testing the craft, a new generation of silica tile and a wealth of other advances that make the Shuttle look like yesterday’s space technology.

Nasa’s X37B programme began in 1999 and ran until September 2004 when it was transferred to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency before being taken over by the US Air Force.

The flight of the X37B is being managed by the US Air Force Space Command’s 3rd Space Experimental Squadron.

“This bird has been through all of the shake, rattle and roll, the vibration tests, the acoustic tests that any spacecraft would go through,” said Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programmes.

With all the focus on the launch of the secret X37B, another space launch by a Minotaur IV rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base in California received less attention.

It was carrying the prototype of a new weapon that can hit any target around the world in less than an hour.

The Prompt Global Strike is designed as the conventional weapon of the future. It could hit Osama bin Laden’s cave, an Iranian nuclear site or a North Korean missile with a huge conventional warhead.

Has the Space War officially begun?

Mail Onlinespace

A top secret space plane developed by the US military has blasted off from Cape Canaveral on its maiden voyage.

Billed as a small shuttle, the unmanned X-37B heralds the next generation of space exploration. It will be the first craft to carry out an autonomous re-entry in the history of the US programme.

But its mission – and its cost – remain shrouded in secrecy. The Air Force said the launch was a success but would give no further details.

However, experts have said the spacecraft was intended to speed up development of combat-support systems and weapons systems.

Speaking after the launch, Air Force deputy under-secretary for space systems Gary Payton, admitted it was impossible to hide a space launch but was cagey about the what exactly the X-37B would do.

‘On this flight the main thing we want to emphasise is the vehicle itself, not really, what’s going on in the on-orbit phase because the vehicle itself is the piece of news here,’ he said.

He refuted claims that the craft was a step towards military dominance in space.

‘I don’t know how this could be called weaponisation of space,’ he said. ‘It’s just an updated version of the Space Shuttle type of activities in space.

‘We, the Air Force, have a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better.’

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle took a decade to develop and will spend up to nine months in orbit. It will re-enter Earth on autopilot and land, just like an ordinary plane, at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The decision on when it returns to Earth is dependant on the Air Force are satisfied with the tasks it has been set to carry out in space.

‘In all honesty, we don’t know when it’s coming back for sure,’ Mr Payton said. ‘It depends on the progress we make with the on-orbit experiments and the on-orbit demonstrations.’   More…