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

Rachel Ford and Taryn Salter watch as Erik Ford and Kam Durden play pool Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, at Vessel Taphouse in Mill Creek, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lynnwood pirate bar faces mutiny over ‘catch the virus’ show

Employees quit, bands canceled and patrons swore off the Vessel Taphouse after it advertised discounts for people sick with COVID.

The tower of Paine Field Airport stands in a fog bank forcing flights to be averted or cancelled in Everett, Washington on January 25, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
More 5G-related cancellations as Paine Field fog persists

The FAA has not cleared certain planes to land in low visibility in Everett due to nearby 5G cellular towers.

Funko mascots Freddy Funko roll past on a conveyor belt in the Pop! Factory of the company's new flagship store on Aug. 18, 2017.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Despite Arizona move, Everett leaders expect Funko HQ to stay

The toymaker is closing Everett warehouses. But a recent “HQ2” expansion has the city confident Funko will remain rooted here.

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, Amazon packages move along a conveyor at an Amazon warehouse facility in Goodyear, Ariz. Amazon’s pandemic boom isn’t showing signs of slowing down. The company said Thursday, April 29, 2021, that its first-quarter profit more than tripled from a year ago, fueled by the growth of online shopping. It also posted revenue of more than $100 billion, the second quarter in row that the company has passed that milestone. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
‘Sold by Amazon’ program ends following state investigation

Washington’s attorney general found the program was anticompetitive and violated antitrust laws.

Meat dishes color icons set. Steak, beef ribs, chicken legs, burger. Fast food. Butcher shop product. Restaurant, grill bar, steakhouse menu. Isolated vector illustrations
Best place to go for BBQ in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied, here are the results.

2021 survey results from the State Broadband Survey for Snohomish County. (Washington State Department of Commerce)
$16M grant to speed up broadband to north Snohomish County

In Darrington and elsewhere, rural residents have struggled to work remotely during the pandemic. A new project aims to help.

FILE - In this March 31, 2017, file photo, Boeing employees stand near the new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner at the company's facility in South Carolina after conducting its first test flight at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston, S.C.  The International Association of Machinist says six of its earliest and most vocal members have been fired at Boeing’s South Carolina plant, months after some employees at the sprawling North Charleston campus voted to join the union.  The Machinists tell The Associated Press that half a dozen employees were terminated from the North Charleston production facilities earlier in 2018. (AP Photo/Mic Smith, File)
Boeing posts $4 billion loss tied to problems with 787 jet

Manufacturing problems with the Dreamliner will add $2 billion to the company’s production costs.

An Alaska Airlines Embraer 175 airplane bound for Portland, Ore., takes off Monday, March 4, 2019, at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. The flight was the first flight on the inaugural day for commercial passenger flights from the airport. Alaska Airlines began scheduled flights Monday, and United Airlines will begin commercial flights on March 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
5G-related airline cancellations arrive at Paine Field

One type of plane serving Everett is subject to restrictions due to feared cellular phone interference with navigation.

Funko warehouse in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Funko to close Everett warehouses, shift work to Arizona

The company headquarters are currently in downtown Everett, but distribution will move to a Phoenix suburb.

FILE - Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson talks to reporters, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, during a news conference in Seattle. In a 5-4 decision Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, the Washington Supreme Court upheld an $18 million campaign finance penalty against the Consumer Brands Association, formerly known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Ferguson sued the group in 2013, alleging that it spent $11 million to oppose a ballot initiative without registering as a political committee or disclosing the source of the money. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington justices uphold $18M fine in GMO-labeling case

Big grocers funneled dark money into a campaign against genetically modified labels on food packaging.

In this photo taken May 17, 2017, wine barrels are shown at a vineyard adjacent to the Walla Walla Vintners winery in Walla Walla, Wash. The remote southeastern Washington town of Walla Walla - which used to be best known for sweet onions and as home of the state penitentiary - has now reinvented itself into a center of premium wines and wine tourism. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)
More sustainable Washington wines are on the way

Labels will indicate grape growers met guidelines in 9 areas, including water, pest and labor practices.

FILE - In this Monday, March 1, 2021 file photo, The first Alaska Airlines passenger flight on a Boeing 737-9 Max airplane takes off on a flight to San Diego from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. A Boeing pilot involved in testing the 737 Max jetliner was indicted Thursday, Oct. 14,2021 by a federal grand jury on charges of deceiving safety regulators who were evaluating the plane, which was later involved in two deadly crashes. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Alaska Airlines to add Boeing 737s to the Paine Field fleet

It’s a sign of the growing popularity of flying from Everett. So far, much smaller Embraer E175s have been the rule.