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Secret U.s. Space Plane May Be Too Mysterious

Transparency. Openness. International cooperation. These are some of the principles the United States should embrace in order to “safeguard U.S. satellites and protect space,” according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Problem is, one of America˘s latest and greatest space gizmos runs afoul of those noble ideas. With its secretive X-37B “space plane,” the United States has been anything but transparent, open and cooperative.

The Air Force launched the 29-foot-long, Boeing-built X-37 in April. Now six months into a potential nine-month deployment, the X-37 periodically changes orbits, frustrating amateur satellite-spotters. Similar to the Space Shuttle, only smaller and fully robotic, the highly maneuverable X-37 includes a payload bay that can accommodate, well, practically anything. “You can put sensors in there, satellites in there,” said Eric Sterner, from The Marshall Institute. “You could stick munitions in there, provided they exist.”

The X-37˘s flexibility — “dual-use” is the technical term — itself could be a little alarming to other nations. Worse, the Air Force has declined to say exactly what X-37 is doing now and in the future. Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, was as vague as possible in describing the bot˘s mission. “Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit. They˘ll run experiments to see if the new technology works.”

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