Boeing space plane spends year on secret mission

A year after the Air Force blasted it into orbit, an experimental space drone continues to circle the Earth.

Its mission and hush-hush payload, however, remain a mystery.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which looks like a miniature unmanned version of the space shuttle, was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Dec. 11, 2012.

At the time of launch, Air Force officials offered few details about the mission, saying that the space plane simply provided a way to test new technologies in space, such as satellite sensors and other components.

It was set to land on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif. But the Air Force has never announced an exact landing date.

Although the X-37B program is classified, some of the particulars are known.

More than 10 years ago, it began as a NASA program to test new technologies for the space shuttle. But when the government decided to retire the aging fleet of shuttles, the Pentagon took over the program and cloaked it in secrecy.

Two X-37B vehicles were built by Boeing Co. The spacecraft is 29 feet long and has a wingspan of 15 feet. It draws solar power from unfolding panels.

This is the third time the Air Force has sent an X-37B into orbit.

The first X-37B was launched in April 2010 and landed 224 days later at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The second X-37B spent 469 days in space.

Some industry analysts have theorized that because of the program’s clandestine nature, the X-37B could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling foreign satellites as it circles the globe.

The Pentagon has repeatedly said the space plane is simply a “test bed” for other technologies.

Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer and expert in space security at the Secure World Foundation, said the X-37B is most likely testing new sensor technologies and satellite hardware. It may even be performing some surveillance over the Middle East region.

“It’s obvious the Air Force is finding some value there,” Weeden said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t keep sending vehicles up.”

More in Local News

These little piggies stay home

Norman, who was spotted last week in Everett, is part of a trio kept as pets by the “pig whisperer.”

Cheering families welcome Kidd, Shoup after 6 months at sea

“I get back Daddy back today,” said one homemade sign at Naval Station Everett.

Stanwood man, 33, killed in crash near Marysville

Speed may have been a factor, the sheriff’s department said.

Street-legal ATVs approved for some roads near Sultan

Supporters foresee tourism benefits. Opponents are concerned about injury and pollution risks.

Jamie Copeland is a senior at Cedar Park Christian Schools’ Mountlake Terrace campus. She is a basketball player, ASB president, cheerleader and, of course, a Lion. (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Cedar Park Christian senior stepping up to new challenges

Jamie Copeland’s academics include STEM studies, leadership, ASB activities, honor society.

Woman, 47, found dead in Marysville jail cell

She’d been in custody about four days after being arrested on warrants, police said.

County plans to sue to recoup costs from ballot drop-box law

A quarter-million dollars could be spent adding 19 ballot boxes in rural areas.

5 teens in custody in drug-robbery shooting death

They range in age from 15 to 17. One allegedly fatally shot a 54-year-old mother, whose son was wounded.

Porch

EVENTS Light it up on First Street A freestyle Christmas Lights Cruise… Continue reading

Most Read