This April 2010 photo released by the U.S. Air Force shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. The U.S. Air Force's secrecy-shrouded X-37B unmanned spaceplane returned to Earth early Friday after more than seven months in orbit on a classified mission, officials said. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force)
The U.S. Air Force will launch its third unmanned space drone today from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The experimental robotic space plane looks like a small space shuttle and is piloted from the ground. The Air Force has been fairly secretive about the drone’s mission and those of its predecessors, saying only that the planes are used to test technologies in space.
The first space drone was launched in 2010 and spent 224 days in space – the second spent over a year and a half. The only information released about these space drone missions was the launch and return dates. While some industry analysts say the secret space planes could be a precursor to space drone weapons, the Pentagon insists that they are only a “test bed” for new technology.
The craft launching today is designed by Boeing to orbit for 270 days, powered by solar panels. The design and building process has been closely guarded, and it is unlikely that the drone’s mission will be any less secretive. What purpose could unmanned space planes serve in the future? Is drone technology the best way to test equipment? How could these missions contribute to space exploration or military technology?
Brian Weeden, Technical Advisor for Secure World Foundation