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Unmanned Space Plane Opening Door to Space Weaponization?

In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline March 30, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, FLa. (Courtesy photo)

After a decade of development work, the Air Force is finally ready to launch its secret space plane, the unmanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle from Cape Canaveral.The craft is expected to spend up to nine months in orbit and will re-enter Earth on autopilot. It will land like an airplane at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

That much is publicly available. Much of the rest has become fodder for speculation.

The only thing the government is saying officially is that the 29-foot-long delta-wing craft will conduct classified experiments while in orbit. Speaking earlier in the week, Gary Payton, the Air Force's deputy under secretary for the space program, said the Air Force's main interest is to test the craft's automated flight control system and learn about the cost of turning it around for launch again.

Piecing together the available clues, Popular Mechanics suggests that the X-37B might resemble "a miniature version of the space shuttle. The publication notes that the launch "will mark the fulfillment of a dream the Department of Defense has been pursuing for nearly 50 years: the orbital flight of a military vehicle that combines an airplane's agility with a spacecraft's capacity to travel in orbit at 5 miles per second."

NASA began the X-37B project in 1999, but the program was later moved under the Defense Department's auspices. It eventually found a home in the Air Force. The ensuing shroud of secrecy fed speculation that the U.S. military was interested in weaponizing space. So, what is the likely end game? The Christian Science Monitor raises the obvious question of whether this is a precursor to war in orbit.

The fact that the US may have an aircraft that can remain airborne for such extended periods  "provides you with all kinds of capability, both military and civilian," Chris Hellman, a policy analyst with the National Priorities Project told the Monitor.