WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force is again preparing to launch its prototype space plane from Cape Canaveral on Nov. 27, but a science group that tracks the program said the space plane’s mission remains cloaked in secrecy.
The Air Force’s first unmanned X-37B space plane, which looks like a scaled-down version of the space shuttle, was launched in April 2010, remaining in orbit for seven months. A second prototype was launched in March 2011 and remained in orbit for over a year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Next week’s launch marks the first prototype’s return to space.
Unlike other military spacecraft, the X-37B is the first that can return from orbit and land on a runway.
Given the high cost of returning spacecraft to Earth like the space shuttle, analysts are puzzling over why the Air Force is spending so much money on the program. “The ability to return to Earth carries a high price,” said Laura Grego of the science group’s Global Security Program. “Most space missions don’t require bringing a spacecraft back to Earth, and the space plane makes no sense for them.”
Grego said the Air Force has stated that the X-37B will allow it to carry out experiments in space over a long period of time and return them to Earth. “Thus far, however, the Air Force has not provided any cost or capability analyses that compare the space plane with simpler spacecraft that return by parachuting to Earth rather than landing on a runway.”
The Air Force X-37B space plane being prepared for launch.
Grego said she doubts the X-37B is being used as a space weapon or as a vehicle for deploying a space weapon. According to a briefing paper
released by the science group, conventional spacecraft can carry payloads into orbit, maneuver in space, rendezvous with satellites, release multiple payloads and return to Earth for tens of millions of dollars less than the space plane.Related stories:Mars Curiosity gets down to science
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