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The Air Force’s Secret Space Plane: The Recent Launch of the X-37B

May 21, 2020

Episode Notes:

On May 17, an Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the X-37B unmanned orbital vehicle on top.  This is the sixth launch of the highly secretive space plane, which is owned by the Air Force and now operated by the Space Force.  According to a Space Force press release, “The mission will deploy the FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct several experiments on orbit. The FalconSat-8 is an educational platform that will carry five experimental payloads for USAFA to operate.” Additionally, the space vehicle is scheduled to carry two NASA experiments on the effects of radiation and space on seeds and other materials, and a Naval Research Laboratory experiment on solar radiation and microwave energy.  In previous missions, the X-37B, which resembles an unmanned space shuttle, has remained in orbit for over two years.  The anticipated duration of this mission was not announced.  Much about the X-37B program is shrouded in secrecy.

To help us understand the roles, missions, and capabilities of the X-37B, we are joined by Dr. Brian Weeden. He is the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation and has nearly two decades of professional experience in space operations and policy.  Prior to joining SWF, Dr. Weeden served nine years on active duty as an officer in the United States Air Force working in space and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) operations. Listeners can follow him on Twitter at @brianweeden.

 

[ 02:01 ] What do we know about the X-37B? How long has it been around and what is its mission?

[ 02:30 ] What types of payloads do we know that it has carried in the past or may be capable of carrying?

[ 03:50 ] The scientific experiments described in the press release seem like missions normally conducted by NASA.  Why is this a military platform/program?

[ 05:08 ] Could the X-37B be useful as a weapons platform or as a weapon itself? Why not?

[ 06:40 ] The designation X-37B suggests that there may have been an X-37A.  What do we know about the predecessor platforms?

[ 07:45 ] In your view, what is the best explanation for the secrecy surrounding the program?

[ 09:15 ] Given the very low orbits you’ve described, how useful is such a platform for developing and prototyping payloads that may have to work in a much different orbital environment?

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