The X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle is an unmanned spacecraft designed to carry a payload into orbit and land by itself without outside control. Because of its design similarities to the Space Shuttle, it is sometimes referred to as a 'Mini-Shuttle'. Like the larger Shuttle, it launches vertically and lands like a plane; and it is designed to be re-usable.
Originally designed by Boeing for NASA, the project was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004, and then to the U.S. Air Force. The vehicle is 8.9 m in length (29 ft. 3 in.) with a wingspan of 4.5 m (14 ft. 11 in.). Originally it was planned to be deployed from the Space Shuttle's cargo bay, but after the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster it was decided to launch the X-37B from on top of an Atlas V rocket.
The Air Force has kept the project shrouded in as much secrecy as possible. It gave out few details of the initial orbital tests, although amateur astronomers were able to locate it anyway. A second X-37B was scheduled to be launched in early March of 2011, but was postponed due to weather conditions. The only official statement the Air Force made was that the launch was "a classified mission," and that the X-37B would be carrying "reusable technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments, which can then be returned to and examined on Earth."
Chinese newspapers have expressed concerns that the X-37B might be carrying weapons and that it represents an attempt to extend the Arms Race into space. But then, as any gamer will tell you, anything capable of travelling at six miles per second is a weapon.
Game and Story Use
- What is the X-37B's secret payload? And how can the PC's find out?
- They'd need pressure suits and it wouldn't be terribly comfortable, but the PC's might actually be the payload
- One wholelly baseless and irresponsible speculation is that the craft could be used to deploy "Thor's Hammers": metal rods designed to drop down from orbit onto targets on earth.
- The Chinese are trying to sabatoge the X-37B's mission and it's up to the PC's to stop them!
- Or perhaps the Chinese are developing an unmanned orbiter of their own and the PC's are the saboteurs!