After a spy mission nearly two years long, America’s robotic space plane is coming back to Earth. The U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B robotic space plane is expected to return to Earth on Tuesday after nearly two years in space. But while it is no secret that the Air Force has sent the unmanned spacecraft into orbit at least three times, the service refuses to say what the machine has been doing up there. While most Air Force and industry officials refuse to talk about the program at all, sources familiar with the program indicated to The Daily Beast that the X-37B is designed to carry experimental payloads of sensors—like various high-tech cameras of various types, electronic sensors and ground-mapping radars. The idea is that the X-37B carries “specialized” sensors packages that can be reconfigured as needed for each mission when the aircraft returns to Earth. That ability to reconfigure the robotic spacecraft makes the X-37B cheaper and more flexible than a satellite—which goes up once with one package of sensors and is eventually discarded. Satellites can often cost billions of dollars and cannot reconfigured or reused, unlike the X-37B. Further, the X-37B can maneuver more freely once it is in space. Unlike a satellite, which is placed into orbit with a finite amount of fuel, the X-37B can be topped with more fuel for its thrusters when it returns to Earth. It can even change orbits. That ability gives the spacecraft much more flexibility than a traditional satellite. More via The Daily Beast.
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