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Aloft for 500 Days, Robotic Plane Remains a Big Mystery

A robotic space plane is speeding in low Earth orbit at this very moment. Some say it’s a weapon; others, a data-gathering mission. There’s one fact most agree on as the plane hits 500 days in space: Its real purpose is a mystery.

The Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Space Vehicle, constructed in California, is one-fourth the size of the Endeavour Space Shuttle.

The Air Force craft, purely a test vehicle that will never reach production, in part aims to explore reusable space-vehicle technologies. That means the robotic vehicle can land, but no one will say when.

What could it be?

Some believe the craft could be some sort of intelligence-gathering tool. The Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit based in Broomfield, Colo., published a 2010 report on the craft. It speculated the space plane’s most likely purpose was for intelligence gathering.

Whatever its real purpose, the X-37B has very real capabilities. It travels low in orbit, staying around 110 to 500 miles above the Earth at a cruising speed of about 17,500 mph. It’s equipped with special heat-shield tiles for re-entry, which are billed by Boeing as tougher than Endeavour’s.