Tags: space | plane | topsecret | NASA

Plane Sets Record in Space, But Mission Still a Mystery

Tuesday, 08 Apr 2014 03:46 PM

By Joe Battaglia

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What exactly is it? What's it been doing for the past almost 500 days? What's it carrying? When is it coming back?

Those are just some of the questions being asked about the X-37B, the Air Force's secret space plane, which has set a space endurance record but mostly remains shrouded in mystery almost a year and a half into its third clandestine mission.

Similar in appearance to the space shuttle but much smaller, the X-37B is a solar-powered robotic craft measuring about 29 feet long and 9.5 feet tall, with a wingspan just less than 15 feet, or about a quarter of the size of the shuttle.

Its payload bay measures 7 feet long and 4 feet wide, about the same as the bed of a pickup truck. When it was launched atop an Atlas-5 rocket in December 2012, it weighed 11,000 pounds.

Because they were manned, the space shuttles could stay in orbit only for up to 17 days. The first X-37B mission, OTV-1, spent 225 days in space. The second mission, OTV-2, lasted 469 days. OTV-3 has now been in orbit 483 days and counting.

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Those details are about all that is known about the space drone, which began as a NASA project but was handed over to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2004, then transferred again to the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office owing to budgetary problems.

That is where the credible information trail ends and the wild speculation begins, because  the Air Force will not comment on what kind of missions the X-37B does in space.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and an authority on satellites and launches, told PC World, "The Air Force now has a policy of acquiring capabilities rather than missions."

McDowell says that capability is that the National Reconnaissance Office can test some kind of experimental sensor in space. Lending credence to his theory is a report in The Christian Science Monitor, which quotes the Air Force as saying the X-37B would be experimenting on allowing "satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology" to be taken to space and back.

Another theory is that the X-37B is operating as a surreptitious satellite eavesdropper or is even tampering with the satellites of other nations, such as China's Tiangong-1 space station module.

Skeptics point out that the United States already has other, smaller, harder-to-track spy satellites, and that to tamper with another satellite, the X-37B would have to be launched into a similar orbit as its target, making it more conspicuous.

That doesn't mean, however, that the X-37B isn't testing technologies that could be incorporated into spy satellites of the future.

"It is primarily an ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] platform for testing new sensor technologies or validating new technologies," Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer with the Space Command’s Joint Space Operations Center, told The Daily Beast. "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."

That flight pattern also takes the X-37B consistently over countries such as North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China, giving it ample opportunity to test the sensors on real-world targets. Given the duration of this third mission, some have speculated that valuable reconnaissance is being achieved through the tests.

In 2010, Tom Burghardt expressed fears in Space Daily that the government intends to use these missions to gauge the feasibility of launching weapons from space. The Pentagon has denied wanting to weaponize space.

"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," Weeden told The Daily Beast. "The secrecy surrounding the program makes it difficult for the U.S. government to respond meaningfully to those claims and debunk them."

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