Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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X-37B Space Spy Plane Returns to Orbit in August; Might Test Anti-Satellite Technologies

Terra firma at last

(Photo : USAF) The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 (OTV-4) after landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 7.

The still mysterious U.S. Air Force X-37B spaceplane will take flight for its fifth official mission in August, this time atop a Falcon 9 launch vehicle of SpaceX, with payloads that might have something to do with anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.

The air force has made it a point not to list all the payloads on its previous X-37B missions, including this upcoming one designated OTV-5. But this hasn't stopped pundits from speculating the air force has indeed tested systems and equipment with military applications.

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The previous X-37B mission, OTV-4, landed on May 7 after a record-setting 718 days orbiting the Earth. No one except the air force knows exactly what this mini-Space Shuttle did in low Earth orbit apart from spying on the United States' strategic competitors.

This X-37B mission entered the record books on March 25 by breaking the world space endurance record by a spaceplane.

While ostensibly a platform to test "reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space," the X-37B is a sophisticated spy spaceplane equipped with high-resolution cameras on all its four missions. There's every reason to believe spy cameras will be on OTV-5.

OTV-5, however, might go a step beyond the usual cameras and test ASAT technologies, and probably an ASAT weapon itself.

The air force of late has placed an inordinate emphasis, both publicly and in testimony before the Congress, on its intent to bolster its ASAT capabilities in light of ASAT developments in Russia and China.

Space is now considered a warfighting domain by the U.S., said Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, director of Space Programs for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition.

He said China and Russia have been "quietly watching" and preparing their own ASAT systems that will destroy U.S. satellites and ground stations, as well.

Gen. Teague, however, refused to categorically state the U.S. will use ASAT missiles to destroy Chinese and Russian satellites.

 "It's imperative that the United States preserve freedom of action and freedom of maneuver," he said. "I won't detail what actions that we are taking to any kind of counter space capabilities that we may have."

The Air Force is asking to increase its fiscal 2018 budget for space programs to $7.7 billion, a 20 percent increase from the current year. The request is an effort to protect the space domain and the U.S.' missile defense network that depends heavily on satellites to detect enemy missile launches.

Falcon 9 will launch the X-37B in August, making it SpaceX's first air force mission.

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