The Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane blasted off again from Cape Canaveral yesterday.
This is the third mission for one of the robotic craft. According to Danger Room, the X-37B cost $1 billion each.
Officially, the solar- and battery-powered X-37s are strictly experimental craft, meant to “demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform” while also “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” according to the Air Force.
“Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit,” is how Gary Payton, Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, explained the X-37′s mission. “They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works, then bring it all back home and inspect it to see what was really going on in space.”
But the Air Force has consistently declined to state exactly what those experiments might be. And in theory the X-37s could also carry spy sensors or gear for hacking enemy satellites. That and the lack of specific information has elicited protests from the Chinese government, which has vowed to build a space plane of its own.