Mysterious X-37B Space Plane Returns to Earth After Nearly Two Years
one seems to know much about the Air Force’s X-37B secret space plane except that it appears to be working exactly as designed. The unmanned Boeing-built craft, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, returned to Earth on Friday after nearly two years — 674 days, to be exact — in space. It’s the X-37B program’s third mission to space and by far the longest.
The plane landed at 9:24 a.m. local time on Oct. 17 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Air Force’s 30th Space Wing announced.
“The 30th Space Wing and our mission partners, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Boeing, and our base support contractors, have put countless hours of hard work into preparing for this landing and today we were able to see the culmination of that dedication,” Colonel Keith Balts, 30th Space Wing commander, said in a release. “I’m extremely proud of our team for coming together to execute this third safe and successful landing. Everyone from our on console space operators to our airfield managers and civil engineers take pride in this unique mission and exemplify excellence during its execution.”
But just what did the X-37B do up there? The Air Force isn’t telling.
To be fair, experimental military-funded space projects aren’t exactly the kind of thing you expect the brass to talk about in public. Inquiries over the years, and this week by NBC News, have always been met with polite but firm “no comment.”
What is known is that the X-37B has no human pilot, or at least not one in its windowless cockpit. It’s operated remotely and lands on its own. The details of its launches aren’t secret, but nor are they particularly interesting: it rode an Atlas V booster on Dec. 12, 2012, and assumed orbit about 180 miles above the Earth. That last part, notably, was figured out by a network of curious astronomers, not released publicly by the Air Force.
The plane’s size means there isn’t room on board for much except avionics equipment, fuel for the thrusters, and a mysterious cavity about the size of a truck bed that could contain all manner of sensors, experiments, hardware — perhaps even a plant or some bacterial colonies. Of course, no one can be sure what’s inside.
Until the Air Force decides it’s time to spill the beans, the X-37B will keep its secrets, even if they happen to just be ordinary testing of still-classified radio hardware or radiation-resistant materials. For now, the X-37B (and its siblings, however many there may be) will be locked away at Vandenberg Air Base in California, waiting, perhaps, to break its own record for days in orbit
Here are three possible theories:
1. It’s a Space Bomber
Forget it, independent experts say. Yes, at one point the Pentagon was funding development of a reusable hypersonic vehicle that was supposed to deliver munitions anywhere in the world within 2 hours. But that concept, called the Common Aero Vehicle, was suborbital. As a spaceplane, the X-37B would suffer from at least one major drawback as a bomber. Changing a spacecraft’s orbital plane requires a great amount of thrust—so using something like the X-37B as a bomber would mean changing its orbit to fly over targets, and that would eat up its limited fuel supply, according to University of Maryland professor Mark Lewis, who once served as the Air Force’s chief scientist. “If I can’t get my alleged bomber to the right location to release its bomb, what good is it?” Lewis says.
2. It’s a Spy Plane
This theory could be correct, though it depends what you think the X-37B is spying on. Earlier this year, the editor of Spaceflight magazine claimed the spaceplane was spying on the Chinese space station, noting that the orbit of the X-37B is close to that of the Tiangong. The theory got a lot of public attention, but Brian Weeden, a consultant with the Secure World Foundation, vigorously disputed it. Weeden, a former Air Force officer who worked at U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center, argues that the China spying theory ignores what is known as right ascension, a critical component of the spacecraft’s orbit. The orbit of the X-37B crosses that of the Chinese space station only at two different points—it’s not as though the spaceplane could keep a constant eye on Tiangong. “Even though there may be a brief chance at some point for the X-37B to collect intelligence [on the Chinese space station], that certainly is not the main mission, or even something all that feasible,” he says.
However, a group of civilian satellite spotters tracking the second X-37B, which is called OTV-2, have noted that the spaceplane’s orbit takes it over countries including Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Weeden agrees that whatever secret payload the X-37B is carrying could indeed be used to capture data from those regions.
3. It’s an Experiment
Could the government be telling the truth? The Air Force has always maintained that the X-37B is simply an experimental platform for testing reusable-space-vehicle technologies and for “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” Weeden says he thinks that really is what the X-37B is doing. “I think the primary mission is the testbed,” he says. 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. Still, reconnaissance and research are not mutually exclusive. X-37B could be doing both.
So, is all the secrecy really necessary? Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, says it’s hard to know at the moment. “But we do know from the history of previous black programs that such secrecy automatically incurs a significant financial cost,” he says, pointing to cases like the now-canceled A-12 aircraft.
“[B]lanket secrecy,” he says, “invites fevered speculation about the program’s true capabilities and intentions, which may or may not serve the national interest.”