Hawthorne, CA-based SpaceX was awarded the contract to launch a U.S. Air Force secret space plane. The X-37B is an unmanned craft that resembles a small space shuttle. It is built by Boeing, and is being used as an orbital test vehicle.


The X-37B was previously launched by the United Launch Alliance, the joint space venture of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. The space plane will now be carried into orbit by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 partially reusable launch vehicle. It has a small, 7×4 foot cargo bay. Boeing is developing a new X-37C which will be able to carry up to 6 astronauts or passengers into orbit.


The space plane’s previous four missions were secret long-duration flights, with the most recent lasting more than 700 days. The unmanned, robotic craft is testing technologies including navigation, control, thermal protection and autonomous orbital flight, according to Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli, U.S. Air Force spokeswoman.


SpaceX’s profitability will get a boost from the new military space plane launch contract, according to TechCrunch. The X-37B has also been described as a “mini Space Shuttle.” Space enthusiasts have wondered about its function and secret missions since it was first-launched five years ago. The Air Force reportedly has two operating space planes.


One potential function of the space plane test flights was reported in National Interest. A Hall-effect ion thruster engine was reported to be under evaluation in the X-37B. This engine enables a shuttle or other space vehicle to maneuver better in space. Current technology is slow and cumbersome with limited mobility. The Hall-effect thruster isn’t as fast as jet engines usable in the atmosphere, but does offer benefits in an orbital space environment. It could enable the X-37B to perform a critical mission to defend satellites or provide an early-warning system in case of attack.