December 10, 2012
Air Force X-37B Spacecraft Prepares For Third Mission Launch
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
The super secret Air Force space plane that looks like a mini-space shuttle is set to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in less than 24 hours.
The X-37B unmanned space plane will be undergoing its third launch, set upon a top secret mission by the Air Force.
The spacecraft has a payload capacity about the size of a small truck bed, the contents of which are unknown.
X-37B will be hitching a ride aboard United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket at 1:03 p.m. on Tuesday. Although the launch window is open until just after 6:00 p.m., there is just a 30 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for liftoff.
The mini-space shuttle is about a quarter of the size of the retired NASA orbiters and is both a reusable and a robotic vehicle.
The vehicle has no crew cabin, no support life systems, and is solar-powered, designed to remain up in orbit for 270 days. Although its max life is supposed to be 270 days, the second X-37B mission flew for 469 days.
X-37B is also famous for being able to launch, orbit the Earth and re-enter our planet's atmosphere, all autonomously.
Many theorists have opinions on what the super secret spacecraft is tasked with doing. Some believe that the X-37B harbors the capability of striking anywhere in the world in less than an hour. However, not everyone is a proponent of this theory.
"Absolutely not," Brian Weeden, a former Air Force official with experience in space and ballistic missile operations, told USA Today. "The laws of physics are a pretty harsh mistress and make such systems impractical and not very useful."
Some believe that the vehicle is meant to keep an eye on China and Russia, particularly China's new space endeavors. Amateur astronomers keeping an eye on X-37B's orbital patterns say that the spacecraft is following closely on China's Tiangong 1 orbit.
Others simply believe that X-37B is just a platform to allow the Air Force to perform experiments in space, or that it is a test bed for advanced sensors or spy technology.
If weather proves to be unfavorable for Tuesday's launch, they then could shoot for another window on Wednesday. However, weather conditions for that day's five-hour launch window are not predicted to be favorable either.