X-37: a spaceplane developed in secret for classified missions in Earth orbit. It sounds like something from a Cold War techno-thriller novel but the United States Air force’s X-37B is a real project and it is flying today. Tracy McConnell reveals the truth.
(For more up to date information on the X-37, see X-37: Speculation, Secrets and Espionage.)
Ever since President George W. Bush announced the upcoming retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2004, there has been a flurry of commercial companies pressed forward with designs to possibly take its place. Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship One, to SpaceX’s, Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets. However multi-billion dollar conglomerates weren’t the only people investigating the possibility of space travel. The USAF has been involved in designing and building its own viable space aircraft: the mysterious Boeing X-37.
It has quite a long convoluted history beginning with NASA, Boeing and the USAF contributing nearly $500 million between 1999 and 2004 towards designing and construction this unmanned space craft. Its main design is similar to that of the space shuttle in that it is a vertical take-off vessel (like a rocket) which lands horizontally (like an aeroplane).
Since September 2004 the X-37 project has been overseen DARPA (the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), where it became a classified project. After extensive testing and some tweeks to the original structure, the Boeing X-37 was scheduled for launch. Unfortunately due to atmospheric conditions and technical problems, the initial flight, which was actually a drop from a high altitude aircraft known as the White Knight, had to be postponed several times before finally occurring on 7 April 2006. It is important to realise that up until this point, this mammoth multi-billion dollar project had yet to make it into space. Several other free flight tests followed successfully and it was decided that it was now time to develop the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).
The OTV-1 is a re-usable robotic space plane also referred to as the Advanced Technology Demonstrator. After its completion and several further delays with the launch due to issues with the prospective launch vehicles, the X-37B finally blasted into space on 22 April 2010 safely ensconced within the Atlas V rocket. Once deployed into space the spacecraft began its orbit of the Earth which lasted until 3 December 2010. During this time the X-37B OTV2 was designed for launch on 5 March 2011.
So the question is… what was it doing? This unmanned spacecraft, which is part of a classified project and which was in orbit for 225 days? It was supposedly testing new spaceflight technologies, before they are committed to be used on other however many alternate theories have been floating around almost since the Air Force took control of the project due to lack of other funding.
One newspaper, the (government-run) China Daily, fears that this spacecraft may spark another space race, surrounding the use of weapons launched from space based platforms, this would of course be in direct violation of a January 2001 United Nations Resolution which states “The exploration and use of outer space … shall be for peaceful purposes and shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development. …prevention of an arms race in outer space would avert a grave danger for international peace and security”. Other news organisations speculated about its possible use as a spy satellite, and this theory seems to be based on amateur sky watchers locating it over North Korea and Afghanistan. X-37B’s orbital period, 4 days, and height, 410 km (255 miles), are congruent with those of a military surveillance satellite. The theories continued to run rampant when the mini shuttle seemed to disappear for two weeks in August last year. When the amateur astronomers and sky watchers re-discovered it, the X-37B seemed to be on a different trajectory and orbit, being 30 km higher than before and now on a six day orbital period. The rational readers will suggest that it was simply conducting some kind of manoeuvrability test that probably changed its direction and speed. And that’s a perfectly plausible explanation, but where’s the fun in that?
The problem with this spacecraft mission and its successor OTV2 which launched on 5 March 2011, is that they are both classified, and no real information is available regarding their mission outside the Pentagon. The fastest way to create a conspiracy is to classify something, and a spacecraft as amazing as a mini robotic space plane is just too interesting not to result in people asking questions. Maybe by the time OTV2 lands, we will have some answers. Just remember that its solar arrays allow it to remain in orbit for up to 270 days. So keep the speculation going in the mean time and keep an eye for it landing sometime in early December.
(For 2012 information on the X-37, see X-37: Speculation, Secrets and Espionage.)
Article by Tracy McConnell.