(Cover photo courtesy of the US Air Force)
It’s been going around the Earth for almost two years — and still, nobody knows what it’s doing up there?
Yeah, that would be the mystery space plane — the X-37B — in orbit for two years on September 7th.
(Don’t try to get any nearer to it than this, though — since it IS a secret mission, if you did get any closer, they’d probably have to kill you.)
Now Boeing built it. The Air Force is “flying” it. So yes, THEY probably do know what’s going on up there — but they’re not talking.
We say “flying”, by the way — because one thing we do know — is that there isn’t any crew. Air Force pilots might be grateful for that, since two years and counting of orbiting round and round the Earth would get a little old. But as a robotic space plane, it’s all good.
We don’t know, but the best guesses are that the “X” is about testing out various materials, technologies, ideas: like the advanced composites it’s built from, instead of aluminum. (Similar to the advanced carbon-fiber materials, made from petrochemicals, which are used more and more in our cars — and for the same reasons: lighter and stronger.)
The robot “pilots” — that experiment makes it possible for the “X” to stay up so long, and to be a lot simpler inside (no kitchen, no bedroom, no bathroom needed).
And it’s designed to be reusable. The “X” goes into space on a rocket, but comes back to Earth like a plane, with its robo-pilots setting it down on a runway. Then after a good cleaning and a bit of touch-up work, it can go back up again (which is a good thing, even if the billion dollar apiece guestimate on price is a little high).
Not everything about the X-37B is new though. If its shape looks kind of familiar, that’s because it is…
(Photo form NASA)
..yes, that’s its big sibling, the old space shuttle. And “big” isn’t a figure of speech: you can’t tell from the photos, but the X is about 30 feet long. The shuttle? Four times that.
Meantime, while we’re waiting for the big reveal, or at least the end of this mission, and the X-37B’s return home — we can all try our hand at answering the question: what IS going on up there?
Cameras snooping on the world down below?
Marketing campaign for NASA’s new line of cute little space plane toys?
Pizza delivery to astronauts on the space station?