SpaceX launches Pentagon’s secretive autonomous space drone

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In the Pentagon’s vast arsenal there is little quite like it: a super-secret space drone that looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle, but orbits the Earth for months, even years, at a time. Doing what? The Air Force won’t say.

On the tarmac, the X-37B, as it is called, looks tiny, standing not much taller than a person. Its wingspan measures less than 15 feet, and it weighs in at just 11,000 pounds. But over the course of six flights, it has proved to be a rugged little robotic spacecraft, spending a total of nearly six years, probing the hard environment of the high frontier.

On Thursday, after a successful morning launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the X-37B headed yet again to the vital real estate known as low Earth orbit, home to the International Space Station and all sorts of military and commercial satellites. The mission is slated to last 270 days, but the Air Force warned in a statement that “the actual duration depends on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance and conditions at the landing facility.”

In other words, there’s no telling how long the thing will be up there.

There’s also no telling what the spaceplane will be doing.

On a fact sheet, the Air Force says that, “the primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.”

On this flight, the Air Force will say only that the mission is to carry small satellites, “demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies.” The service also said it would test experimental electronics in a weightless environment.

But at a time when space is becoming a contested environment, having an orbiting spaceplane with the potential to keep a lookout on weather or the enemy or satellites, all while testing new technologies, could be highly beneficial.

The mission is also significant because it marked the first time SpaceX has been chosen to launch for the Air Force — a coup for the California firm started in 2002 by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.

The launch took place as the Pentagon sounds the alarm about the importance of defending the ultimate high ground should war break out in space. More recently, the House has even pushed for the creation of a separate “Space Corps” within the Air Force designed to focus exclusively on the beyond.

The provision, included in the House’s version of the defense spending bill, comes amid concerns that Russia and China are quickly eroding the advantage that the United States has held in orbit for years.

“Space has become so critical to the way we fight and win wars, it can no longer be subordinate,” Rep. Mike D. Rogers, a Republican from Alabama who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said at an event this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Space Corps would focus on “space domination,” he said, with a dedicated leadership and resources that would allow it to move more nimbly than the Pentagon bureaucracy.

“The Air Force is about as fast a herd of turtles as far as space is concerned,” he said. “What Russia and China are doing is startling.”

While most agree that space is an increasingly important military domain, support in the Senate for a new separate military branch is far from assured. And many in the upper reaches of the Pentagon also oppose it.

The X-37B was launched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX also successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a landing pad on the Cape—a bit of rocket artistry that Musk and others have said could help dramatically lower the cost of space travel. By now the feat is becoming routine for the company, which plans to reuse its boosters instead of throwing them away after each launch, as had been the traditional practice.

The launch represented a significant coup for Musk’s space company, which had been fighting to enter the national security launch market for years.

For nearly a decade, the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, had a monopoly on Pentagon launches. SpaceX filed suit against the Air Force for the right to compete. In 2015, the parties settled and SpaceX was ultimately allowed to compete against ULA, opening up a potentially lucrative source of revenue. Since then, SpaceX has won two of three contested launch contracts.

The Pentagon said it was grateful to have two companies with the ability to launch, introducing competition, and lower prices.

“The benefit we’re seeing now is competition,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during a June Senate hearing. “There are some very exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price.”

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Think Tank Cowork in Everett, Washington on July 19, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
The first co-working space opens in downtown Everett

Think Tank Cowork’s owner hopes the facility will inspire other business owners to call Everett home.

New LGI Homes on Thursday, May 12, 2022 in Sultan, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The real estate market took an abrupt turn this spring

Mortgage rates are up, but home inspections, seller concessions are back on the table for buyers.

The Lab@Arlington is a new one-stop shop for entrepreneurs and inventors located at 404 N. Olympic Ave. (Photo credit: TheLab@Arlington)
New Arlington business incubator opens

TheLab@Arlington is a new one-stop shop for entrepreneurs, inventors and business owners.

Patrons view the 787 exhibition Thursday morning at the Boeing Future of Flight Musuem at Paine Field on October 8, 2020. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Paine Field was county’s No. 1 tourist attraction. Not now

Snohomish County officials hope festivals and outdoor activities will fill Paine Field tourist gap.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Stanwood in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Stanwood Chamber of Commerce ‘can’t keep the doors open’

The chamber is set to shut down at the end of the month due to financial challenges.

Maria Rios, a ferry worker of 13 years, helps Frank and Fran Butler, both of Washington, D.C., check out as the couple purchases food on Thursday, July 21, 2022, aboard the MV Suquamish ferry between Mukilteo and Clinton, Washington. Rios said food service returned to the Suquamish about three weeks prior. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Drink up! Happy hour on the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry is back

More galleys are reopening as pandemic restrictions scale back. Get out of your car for concessions just like at the ballpark.

OnTrac Logistics has leased a building now under construction at Bay Wood Business Park on Everett's waterfront. The shipping company will open a facility there later this year that will employ 400 people. (Artist Rendering/Broderick Group.)
New Everett shipping facility to generate 400 jobs

OnTrac Logistics has leased a new building on the 12½-acre Baywood Business Park on Everett’s waterfront.

The Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum at Paine Field in Everett. (Janice Podsada / The Herald) 20220419
Flying Heritage Museum to reopen with new owner at Paine Field

Walmart heir Steuart Walton bought the historic aircraft and artifacts. The museum is set to reopen within the year.

Renee's Contemporary Clothing store at 2820 Colby Ave. on July 11, 2022. The iconic downtown Everett store is closing in August after 29 years in business. (Janice Podsada/The Herald)
Renee’s, another iconic downtown Everett store, is closing

After 29 years in business, the longstanding clothing shop will shutter. In-person sales slowed when stores reopened.

FILE - The logo for Boeing appears on a screen above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Boeing is reporting a money-losing quarter as both its civilian-airplane division and the defense business are struggling. Boeing said Wednesday, April 27, 2022,  that it lost $1.24 billion in the first quarter and took large write-downs for several programs.  (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)
Boeing sees best month for aircraft deliveries since 2019

The company delivered 51 passenger and cargo planes in June, its best month for deliveries in recent years.

The Alderwood Towne Center, a 105,000 square-foot strip mall, is located at 3105-3225 Alderwood Mall Blvd. The mall, which has been sold, is home to 20 businesses, including anchor tenants Marshalls and Michaels. Photo Credit: CBRE Group.
Lynnwood strip mall near Link Light Rail Station sold

Alderwood Towne Center, home to 20 businesses, could eventually be redeveloped to take advantage of light rail.

James Berntson shows how his farm uses a trellis system to control tomato plants on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at Radicle Roots Farm in Snohomish, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Backyard business: Snohomish farm thrives on less than one acre.

James Berntson grew Radicle Roots Farm using smart crop planning and organic practices.