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Published:May 19th, 2010 22:19 EST
Air Force Secret Space Plane - The Future of Unmanned Space Flight?

Air Force Secret Space Plane - The Future of Unmanned Space Flight?

By John Danz, Jr.


One of the main points in President Obama`s speech at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this past April was that the space program needed to create fresh ideas for space exploration and avoid doing the same things they`ve been doing. One way he made his message clear was cutting the Constellation program, which planned to send astronauts to the moon - no doubt a destination that`s run its course. He also turned to private companies to send astronauts to the International Space Station - another familiar space travel hot spot.

Beyond the politics and promises lies a new innovation for the space program: The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-1.

The orbiter is just 29 feet long with a wingspan of 14 feet, compared to a space shuttle which is 122 feet long and 78 feet across. A typical space shuttle`s payload bay could hold two of these compact spacecraft. The spacecraft is also very fuel efficient, using solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, which also makes it capable of more lengthy orbits. It can stay in orbit for 270 days and land back on terra firma like a normal shuttle. The main thing that sets this craft apart from the usual shuttles is that it`s completely robotic - no astronaut needed.

The Secure World Foundation (SWF), a private operating foundation dedicated to the secure and sustainable use of space for the benefit of Earth and all its inhabitants, released a fact sheet giving some insight as to what this spacecraft can do, as well as the feasibility of certain missions.

The objective with the highest feasibility is the usage of X-37B as an on-orbit sensor platform and test bed. X-37B`s payload bay would be inundated with sensors used for intelligence collection of the Earth from space -  radar, optical, infrared, and signals/electronic intelligence suites to flight-test and evaluate new sensors and hardware. One advantage of this is that these particular sensor platform and test bed missions have done by regular shuttles. Another advantage is that the ability to flight test and return experimental sensors and satellite hardware would be of significant benefit to the US military. Obviously, one major drawback is the cost of the program, with an estimated cost of $100 million per launch.

X-37B could also be used to launch small satellites in a timely and efficient manner. Advantages? More surreptitious manner of deployment, making the satellites harder to track by amateurs. A major drawback, however, is the shuttle`s inability to carry many satellites and the cost of deployment, which means less bang for the buck, essentially.

Even lower is the feasibility of the X-37B`s usefulness as a satellite repair vehicle. Its limit in altitude, which is only speculated at 500 nautical miles, would be high enough in theory to rendezvous with many satellites. "In theory" is the key term, however. Plus, many existing satellite  parts are too cumbersome to be held by the X-37B.

On that same note, X-37B could be used to inspect existing satellites and possibly de-orbit them. However, existing platforms already have such a capability and can stay in orbit for much longer. Also, as compact as X-37B is, it is still larger than the other platforms used to inspect and de-orbit satellites, which makes it easier for enemies to detect infiltration of their satellites.

On the note of enemies, there has been speculation that X-37B could be used as a weapon to drop missiles or be used as a weapon itself. This would eliminate political issues over using ballistic missiles launched from the ground for conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) missions. Unfortunately for the developers, weapons dropped from the bay would need to be equipped with thrusters capable of performing a huge de-orbit burn, very difficult given the limited bay size. Also, the usage of the spacecraft as a weapon itself is counter-intuitive, as it only reaches a maximum 200 mph during re-entry. Given the cost of X-37B, having many in use as a weapon or a means of releasing weapons is highly unlikely.

Brian Weeden, Technical Advisor of Secure World Foundation, penned the majority of the fact sheet. His mission was to reveal the feasibility of the capabilities of X-37B. As shown from the results, the only highly likely usage for the spacecraft is "as a flexible, responsive spacecraft to collect intelligence from space and as a platform to flight test new sensors and satellite hardware." Weeden adds that "The X-37B brings to space the capability to customize the on-board sensor package for a specific mission, similar to what can be done with U.S. reconnaissance aircraft such as the U-2 and SR-71. In many ways, this gives the X-37B the best of both worlds."

According to, X-37B is orbiting Earth as of April 22, 2010. The orbit could last up to 250 days, and will auto-land in California.

For more information on X-37B:;xy=5028369

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Judyth Piazza sits down with Colonel Rick Searfoss