Top secret US space plane finishes 8-month mission
Nobody knows what the X-37B has been up to, but that hasn't stopped the speculation
A US robotic space shuttle called the X-37B is set to land this week after a top secret eight-month mission that has prompted talk of 'space warplanes' and the weaponisation of space.
The US Air Force, which has been tight-lipped about the mission since its April launch, said in a brief statement: "Preparations for the first landing of the X-37B are underway at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Space professionals from the 30th Space Wing will monitor the de-orbit and landing of the Air Force's first X-37B, called the Orbital Test Vehicle 1."
It added that the landing time is expected this coming weekend.
Astronomers have been following the X-37B's mission with interest. In August, a South African noticed that the nine metre long space plane had abruptly switched orbits. Unfortunately, there are no clues as to what the X-37B is carrying in its hold, but rumours abound that it is some kind of reconnaissance gadget.
When the spacecraft launched in April, The First Post reported on concerns that the 'dual-use' military capabilities of the X-37B (above), which began its life as a Nasa project called the X-37, would add to the weaponisation of space.
There was talk of satellite 'kidnap' missions, while Iran's government mouthpiece, Press TV, dubbed the X-37B a "secret space warplane" and a "first generation of US 'space Predator drones'" in a reference to the automated fighter planes the US military uses in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
If successful, the X-37B's automatic re-entry and landing will be the first by a US spacecraft. The accolade of the first autonomous re-entry and landing belongs to the Soviet Union, whose own space shuttle, Buran, achieved the task in 1988 before it was cancelled.
Whatever the X-37B has achieved in its eight months away, the US Air Force obviously sees great potential: the Pentagon has announced it is building another prototype.
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