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The Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane is now readying for its third space mission, slated to begin in October. And perhaps not surprising for the hush-hush orbital drone, the third time into space remains as secretive as the first two.
“We are on track to launch the third X-37B OTV mission in late October,” Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B program manager at the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, tells Danger Room. The plane is designed to stay up for nine months, but “actual duration will depend on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance, and conditions at the landing site.”
McIntyre added that the Air Force is evaluating the feasability of landing at the Kennedy Space Center, which “has the potential to save program costs.” But for now, the Air Force is still planning to land the plane at Vandenberg, per usual.
The U.S. has a vast constellation of spy satellites in orbit. But these surveillance spacecraft have traditionally only been able to gaze down on a few small areas of the planet at a time, like flashlights probing the dark. And this, only with careful advance planning by human operators on the ground. America’s satellites helped monitor and map bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound, but had to be told where to look by intel agents who gleaned key information from detained terror suspects and al-Qaida couriers they were tracking.
The National Reconnaissance Office, America’s secretive spy satellite agency, wants to expand the current flashlight-like satellite deployment to a horizon-spanning, overhead spotlight that can illuminate vast swaths of the planet all at once. The agency also wants new spacecraft that can crunch the resulting data using sophisticated computer algorithms, freeing the satellites somewhat from their current reliance on human analysts.
If it works as planned, missions like the years-long hunt for bin Laden could become a lot easier for the U.S. But that’s assuming the technology can be developed on time and on cost.