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Why Is the Air Force Launching Unmanned Planes Into Space?

Another of the Air Force’s $1 billion X-37B space planes has blasted off from Florida into space, but no one can quite figure out why.

The launch marked the Air Force’s third in three years. The military will only say that the planes are performing undisclosed experiments during their orbits, bringing data back to Earth with each venture. A live webcast of the launch was cut off after just 17 minutes so the plane could begin its classified mission.

Speculation abounds about the “new technologies” the unmanned planes are testing. Industry watchdogs said the lack of a human crew likely ruled out scientific uses for the planes—and the possibility that they have spying capabilities set off protests from China, which says it will launch planes of its own.

Whatever the case, the enormous expense for the project guarantees the question will remain open even after the missions are completed.