Task and Purpose, Jared Keller
Security, North America
Here’s what it may be up to.
The Air Force’s top secret unmanned X-37B space plane blasted off on its fifth flight on Sept. 7, launching from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with an assist from a Falcon 9 rocket booster belonging to billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX, the Associated Press reports.
Though the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle’s mission is classified, CBS News reported that the spacecraft “was believed to be bound for a relatively low orbit” using the Falcon orbital launch vehicle’s second stage. The first stage, designed for recovery and reuse, returned to its Florida launch pad minutes after launch in SpaceX’s 16th successful Falcon return, per CBS News.
The X-37B, first launched in April 2010 after 11 years in development, finally landed back in Florida in May after 718 days in orbit, landing at Kennedy Space Center with a sonic boom after completing its fourth mission in space.
While the Air Force said at the time that the spacecraft “performs risk reduction, experimentation, and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies,” the details of that mission remained classified as well. According to Popular Mechanics, experts believe that the X-37B mission payloads “are used to test new military space satellite technologies including ion thrusters, and optical and radar-based sensors designed to spy on objects on the ground or other satellites.”