The Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane just got a little more mysterious. The 29-foot-long reusable mini-shuttle was designed to spend up to 270 days in orbit. The 270th day of the winged spacecraft’s second flight is today, but the military has no intentions of bringing the billion-dollar robotic vehicle back to Earth just yet. “It’s still up there,” Maj. Tracy Bunko told MSNBC.
Exactly what the X-37B is doing is a secret. The Air Force insists the X-37B, built by Boeing in its soon-to-closed Huntington Beach facility, is meant only for conducting orbital science experiments in its pickup-bed-size cargo bay, but analysts say the X-37B is capable of much more than that. It could be an orbital spy. It could even be used to sneak up on and tamper with enemy satellites. It could haul small batches of supplies to the International Space Station. In October, Boeing program manager Art Grantz proposed to build an enlarged X-37C model that could also carry astronauts to the station, filling a gap left by the retired NASA Space Shuttle.
Whatever it’s up to, the X-37B will be doing it longer than anyone imagined when the diminutive spacecraft launched atop an Atlas rocket for the first time in April last year. The Air Force said last year that the X-37B could last nine months in orbit before its power and fuel ran out. (In comparison, the longest manned shuttle mission lasted just 17 days.) In October, Air Force program manager Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre said an extension might be possible. Now it appears the Air Force is taking it day by day, carefully monitoring the X-37B “as it sips power and fuel like a Prius,” in the words of one source involved in the development of military spacecraft.