Military activities in space appear to be increasing with the second mission of the X-37B spacecraft. Operated by the United States Air Force, the vehicle resembles the space shuttle orbiters which are currently being retired by NASA.
Unlike the space shuttle program, the X-37B program is a secretive program with missions that are not publicly known.
According to The Examiner (http://www.examiner.com/technology-in-national/the-air-force-s-x-37b-space-plane-reaches-orbit-for-the-second-time), the X-37B is a remotely piloted vehicle, meaning that there is no need for a human pilot. It can stay aloft for about 9 months if necessary and is capable of transporting a variety of satellites and sensors into orbit. It does not, however, have the same heavy-lift cargo capacity of the much larger space shuttle, meaning that it seems unable to be of much use for missions that could service the International Space Station.
Enemies of the United States, mainly China, have used the X-37B as grounds to allege that the United States is weaponizing space with the vehicle, and could lead to a costly and dangerous arms race in space that could have unforeseen consequences for the earth.
The latest X-37B launch appears to involve a second orbiter that is different from the one launched last year, according to Gizmodo (http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2011/03/second-super-secret-x-37b-space-plane-blasts-into-orbit/). The current mission is expected to last about nine months, a lengthy journey not possible using the space shuttle fleet.
That report says that the first X-37B mission lasted for 224 days.
Said to be born out of the increasing need for military activity in space, the X37-B is an innovative program that introduced a reusable space vehicle that can drastically reduce the cost of operating in space while adding the flexibility of a cargo bay that can be equipped with experiments and sensors, weapons and satellites, depending on the needs of the Air Force.
Similar to the way the space shuttles operate, the X-37B is launched into orbit using an external rocket booster and then uses its own built-in engine to navigate while in space and preparing for re-entry and landing.
Russia, a longtime adversary of the United States has become interested in the X37-B space plane and is said to be working on its own version of the craft. In what some may say has become a tradition, nations such as Russia and China appear to sit by while the United States spends billions of dollars developing new technologies and then copy them once they are deployed. This practice could allow those countries to maintain parity in a variety of military and space categories at a fraction of the price paid by American taxpayers for original development.
The Christian Science Montior (http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2011/0203/Can-Russia-rival-the-X-37B-space-plane-with-its-own-robotic-spacecraft) published an article earlier this year suggesting that Russian work on their own X37-B may already be in its preliminary stages.