X-37B Space plane
The US Air Force's X-37B autonomous experimental space plane, which is orbiting the Earth on a secret mission US Air Force

SpaceX will help the US Air Force launch its secret space plane for its next mission as part of the force's cost cutting program. The air force has two Boeing X-37B space planes, one of which recently returned after spending more than 700 days in space.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting, the US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told members that the fifth mission of the X-37B will be launched into space by a Falcon 9 rocket belonging to SpaceX and not the Atlas V as before. She said the company was offering a much lower price than what Atlas would have costs them.

"There are some very exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price," she told the committee.

Wilson divulged the details when she was asked about the military's capability for a rapid response to military space needs. Although the US military has never admitted what the real purpose of the X-37B is, some experts have hinted that it is keeping itself ready for space war.

The upcoming launch, which is tentatively scheduled for August, will be the space plane's fifth mission. Since 2010, each of the planes has flown two missions into outer space ranging from 224 to 717 days.

Boeing X-37B technical specifications

  • The 4,990kg spaceplane measures 8.92m long, with a wingspan of 4.55m.
  • It has a small payload bay of 2.1 x 1.2m, and carries no crew.
  • It is powered by gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.
  • It has only one manoeuvring engine that burns hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.

The X-37 programme started by Nasa in 1999 was later transferred to the US military, specifically its research wing, Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), famous for running an array of classified projects. The purpose of the mission for the space planes have never been clearly stated by the military but the Air Force defines its primary objectives as a reusable and experiment spacecraft which can be returned to and examined on Earth.

With SpaceX getting into one of US military's pet projects, it is expected that other commercial space companies like Blue Origin, Vulcan Aerospace and Virgin Galactic may also push for similar government contracts. The commercial space industry has been growing rapidly with companies actively planning an array of missions ranging from space tourism, mining on Moon and landing on Mars to creating a manufacturing hub outside the planet floating in space.