This space craft’s secret mission has been unveiled. Check out what this drone has been up to for two years.
For almost two years, an unmanned space plane bearing a remarkable resemblance to NASA’s space shuttle has circled the Earth, performing a top-secret mission. It’s called the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle — but that’s pretty much all we know for certain.
Officially, the only role the Pentagon acknowledges is that the space plane is used to conduct experiments on new technologies. Theories about its mission have ranged from an orbiting space bomber to an anti-satellite weapon.
The truth, however, is likely much more obvious: According to intelligence experts and satellite watchers who have closely monitored its orbit, the X-37B is being used to carry secret satellites and classified sensors into space — a little-known role once played by NASA’s now-retired space shuttles.
For a decade between the 1980s and early 1990s, NASA’s space shuttles were used for classified military missions, which involved ferrying military payloads into space. But the shuttles’ military role rested on an uneasy alliance between NASA and the Pentagon. Even before the 1986 Challenger disaster, which killed all seven crewmembers, the Pentagon had grown frustrated with NASA’s delays.
Now, with the X-37B, the Pentagon no longer has to rely on NASA — or humans.
The X-37B resembles a shuttle, or at least a shrunken-down version of it. Like the space shuttles, the X-37B is boosted into orbit by an external rocket, but lands like an aircraft on a conventional runway. But the X-37B is just shy of 10 feet tall and slightly less than 30 feet long.
Its cargo bay, often compared to the size of a pickup truck bed, is just big enough to carry a small satellite. Once in orbit, the X-37B deploys a foldable solar array, which is believed to power the sensors in its cargo bay.
“It’s just an updated version of the space shuttle type of activities in space,” insisted one senior Air Force official in 2010, the year of the first launch, when rampant speculation about the secret project prompted some to question whether it was possibly a space bomber.
For several years, the X-37B was developed in plain sight, with the military saying it was just a test vehicle. But in 2009, the Air Force suddenly said it was classified, and it went from being just another technology project to an object of obsession for amateur satellite spotters and aviation enthusiasts.
On Dec. 11, 2012, the X-37B was launched for a third time, and that vehicle has now spent over 600 days in space.
And despite the secrecy surrounding its mission, the space plane’s travels are closely watched. The Air Force announces its launches, and satellite watchers monitor its flight and orbit. What is not revealed is what’s inside the cargo bay and what it’s being used for.
While the X-37B requires a rocket to boost it into orbit, its success may be helping to revive dreams of a true reusable space plane that can take off and land like an aircraft.