The X-37B, the U.S. Air Force's secret robotic space plane, has now been in orbit for almost 500 days, a record-breaking time period for space endurance. The latest version of the relatively tiny spacecraft, which is just one quarter of the size of the space shuttles, was launched in December 2012 on a top-secret mission.
The X-37B has a payload bay approximately the size of a pickup truck bed, and it is thought to be carrying highly sensitive cargo. It began its life as a NASA project to build a small, unmanned space plane, then the project was passed over to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2004. A lack of funds prompted a further handover to the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which is continuing to manage the X-37B program.
The unmanned spacecraft can remain in orbit for much longer than the original Space Shuttles, which were limited by the requirements of the crew on board to short missions of up to 17 days.
The first X-37B launched, OTV-1, was able to orbit for 225 days; its sister plane OTV-2 doubled that time by staying in space for 469 days. Now the latest X-37B has already exceeded its predecessors and there is no indication that its mission is at an end.
So what is it doing up there?
Despite its record stay in space, no details have been released about its mission, or when it might return. The U.S. Air Force is happy to comment on the space drone as a technological achievement, but refuses to elaborate on its purpose.Consequently, rumors are rife, but the official line is that the X-37B is merely an experimental platform for "operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth."
Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer with the Space Command’s Joint Space Operations Center and now at the Secure World Foundation, believes that the X-37B is primarily a test bed for new technologies.
“I think it is primarily an ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) platform for testing new sensor technologies or validating new technologies.” Weeden said in an interview. “The current OTV-3 on orbit has basically been in the same orbit since launch, with only the occasional maneuver to maintain that orbit. That’s consistent with a remote sensing/ISR mission."
There are those who are not satisfied that this is the full story, and there is conjecture that the X-37B could be a spy plane.
"The X-37B is a good way for the Air Force to fly new technology such as sensors into space, test it, and then examine it back on Earth," said Weeden. " Still, reconnaissance and research are not mutually exclusive. X-37B could be doing both, " he added.
Perhaps the X-37B can surreptitiously lurk near other satellites and intercept their transmissions?
Skeptics suggest that this would be pointless as there are smaller, stealthier satellites that could do this type of job far more effectively; the X-37B is fairly easy to spot even by the amateur astronomer.
Interestingly, a group of such hobbyists previously noted that the orbit of the second X-37B, OTV-2, swept it over some very sensitive areas, including North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China, with plenty of potential targets to snoop on, from missile facilities to the shipyards building China's new fleet of aircraft carriers.
This fuelled the popular theory that the X-37Bs have been launched as spy planes, but Weeden argued their orbits do not allow for constant surveillance so this is unlikely to be the primary objective for their presence in space.
"Even though there may be a brief chance at some point for the X-37B to collect intelligence, that certainly is not the main mission, or even something all that feasible," he said.
The lack of orbital and directional flexibility undermines another theory, namely that the X-37Bs are bomber planes. This idea was sparked by the fact that the Pentagon did begin to develop a hypersonic aircraft that was intended to deliver weapons to any destination worldwide within two hours. This was still to be a sub-orbital endeavor, however; changing the direction of an orbital vehicle would require much more thrust and would quickly use up limited fuel reserves.
As University of Maryland professor Mark Lewis, who once served as the Air Force’s chief scientist, commented: "If I can’t get my alleged bomber to the right location to release its bomb, what good is it?"
So this returns the speculation back to the original and official explanation, that the X-37Bs are just test platforms to check the efficiency of various pieces of space kit in the right environmental conditions.
If this is genuinely the true purpose of the diminutive spacecraft, then is all the secrecy surrounding it really necessary?
Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said that it would remain difficult to determine why the Pentagon is unwilling to reveal the details of the plane's mission, but designating a project as classified is not a decision undertaken lightly.
"We do know from the history of previous black programs that such secrecy automatically incurs a significant financial cost," said Aftergood, citing other examples such as the now-canceled A-12 aircraft.
Weeden remains convinced that the rumors of questionable activities are unfounded.
“I don’t think the secrecy surrounding the X-37B program is an attempt by the U.S. government to hide anything nefarious, but rather that it’s driven by bureaucratic inertia,” he said.
He did concede, however, that their silence only fed the rumors.
“The secrecy surrounding the program makes it difficult for the U.S. government to respond meaningfully to those claims and debunk them. [B]lanket secrecy invites fevered speculation about the program’s true capabilities and intentions, which may or may not serve the national interest."
So, the mystery plane continues to orbit around the Earth on its unspecified mission, and no one will say when it is likely to return. Until the veil of secrecy is lifted, the speculation surrounding its activities will undoubtedly continue.
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