We've had a secret space plane in Earth orbit for a year. But why?

The space shuttle fleet is a museum collection, and we're still a few years from seeing NASA's next manned vehicle, but America still has at least one spaceship out there. The Air Force has been flying a "secret" space plane around the Earth for the last year, and no one can really figure out why.

The unmanned X-37B, a 29-foot solar-powered "orbital test vessel" that basically looks like a mini-shuttle, has been in low Earth orbit at 17,000 miles per hour since last March. It's actually the second such craft to go up (another one landed in December after nearly eight months in orbit), and it was supposed to come down at the end of last year. Except it didn't, and the Air Force won't say why.

"We initially planned for a nine-month mission," Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, director of the X-37B's systems program, said in December. "Keeping the X-37 in orbit will provide us with additional experimentation opportunities and allow us to extract the maximum value out of the mission."

Granted, it would be rather weird if the Air Force just came out and told the world both the purpose of their space plane and why it's been up there three months longer than it was supposed to be. But still, the extension of the X-37B's mission has prompted new discussion on what exactly the ship is up to.

Of course, the first two places your brain goes when you hear "secret space plane" are defense and intelligence, so naturally more than a few people are thinking the X-37B is up there to spy on something. One theory is that it's keeping an eye on China's new Tiangong space station. The first part of that program was launched into orbit back in September, so it makes sense that NASA realized a bit later that they need more time to watch it, right?

It sounds plausible, except when you consider how fast both craft are moving. It would be very, very tricky to get a good look, and besides, the U.S. has plenty of other, easier ways to check out what China's got in orbit.

Last May, amateur astronomers were able to chart the other X-37B's path and noted that it flew over North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, all likely targets for U.S. spying. So maybe that's what's going on. The more likely explanation, though, is that the program's leaders are showing off for their bosses.

See, under the proposed new federal budget for 2013-2017 submitted by the president earlier this year (you know, the one that cut all that NASA money), the X-37B program would be cut. That's prompting speculation that the plane is being kept up there to prove its energy efficiency and durability, in the hope that it'll impress officials enough to keep funding it.

Whatever the case, the X-37B does make for some intriguing discussion. It's not designed to carry humans (yet), and we don't know when it's coming back down. But hey, at least it flies.

(via Mail Online)

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