‘Secret’ X-37B Space Plane Disappears Again

by Nicholos Wethington on October 11, 2010

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Artist impression of the Boeing X-37B (USAF)

The game between the United States Air Force and amateur satellite trackers continues: the unmanned X-37B space plane – a classified project of the Air Force – has changed orbit once again, leaving those that monitor the flyovers of the space plane scrambling to locate it once again.

The X-37B was launched on April 22nd, 2010 on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and has been orbiting the Earth ever since. During the period between July 29th and August 14th of this year, the plane changed its orbit and forced the amateurs that monitor the satellite to find it again, and recalculate its orbital path. According to Spaceweather.com yesterday, the X-37B has once again changed its location. It did not pass over at the expected time on the nights of October 7th and October 9th.

Possibilities for this latest change in orbit include a simple maneuvering test or change in the current testing phase of the plane, or the potential that it is finally about to land. The gallium arsenide solar panels on the craft should allow it to stay in space for up to 270 days, but it has only been 173 days since the launch.

The X-37B is controlled remotely, and can automatically land. Once this flight is over, it will land at either the Vandenberg Air Force Base or the Edwards Air Force Base, both located in California.

Not much has been said about the the secret project by the Air Force. Started at NASA in 1999, the automated space plane was handed over to the Pentagon in 2004. This initial flight of the X-37B is billed as a test of the craft by the Air Force. Here’s its description according to the Air Force fact sheet:

“The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is a non-operational system that will demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The objectives of the OTV program include space experimentation, risk reduction and a concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”

Of course, there has been much speculation about whether this constitutes the “weaponization of space”, since it is, after all, a project of the Air Force instead of NASA. To put your mind at ease, here’s a link to an analysis of potential uses of the X-37B by former Air Force officer Brian Wheeden, who is now a Technical Adviser to the Secure World Foundation. He places the likelihood that the space plane could be used as a weapon at zero, but its capabilities as an orbital spy platform are feasible.

If you want a comprehensive look into the history and the possible uses of the X-37B, there is a lengthy article over at Air & Space by associate editor Michael Klesius.

There’s also a video up on Space.com by satellite tracker Kevin Fetter of Brockville, Ontario showing a flyover of the plane.

We’ll keep you posted as to when the X-37B is recovered by amateurs, if it has landed, or in the unlikely event that the Air Force decides to release any information about its current mission.

Source: Spaceweather.com

Aqua October 11, 2010 at 7:03 PM

Looks like they’re after some answers? #1 What does that new Chinese satellite look like? #2 What happened to that $2 billion dollar spy satellite that suddenly went dark? #3 What the hell is that thing?

Emilio October 12, 2010 at 3:13 AM

As experimental test platform it is be very useful. We have done very little since Shuttle. That was 30 years ago!

Niolator October 12, 2010 at 4:54 AM

This seems like a hoax to me, especially if you look at the picture of the craft. How could it possibly land with those miniature wings and that huge fuselage?

Niolator October 12, 2010 at 5:09 AM

Also, if they managed to fit that thing onto an Atlas V rocket and got it into space they must have accomplished an engineering feat unheard of since the construction of the Cheops pyramid.

ilya2 October 12, 2010 at 5:56 AM

Niolator:

You are joking, right? It is only 29′ long and has 14′ wingspan. Fitting it into Atlas V is no problem at all.

Niolator October 12, 2010 at 6:53 AM

I can not really grasp the measurements as you are using a very local unit on an international forum. But if it is to fit inside the normal cargo space of an Atlas V rocket it would be far to small to be seen by amature telescopes. You are not suggesting that it is mounted on the outside of the rocket?

gopher65 October 12, 2010 at 7:07 AM

Niolator… you realize that when you look up you can see all sorts of tiny satellites, right? With your naked eyes, not even needing a telescope. And most of the ones you can see are smaller than this spaceplane.

Besides which, this spaceplane has large solar panels deployed which aren’t pictured in the illustration. Those panels are very shiny, and (in order to catch sunlight at the optimal angle) are regularly angled in such a way that they reflect light toward the ground. When that happens this little spaceplane becomes even brighter than it already is.

As for wings, keep in mind that on the Columbia class spaceplanes those wings were there in order to increase the potential landing sites, not in order to help the spacecraft “fly” like a plane does. Those shuttles drop like bricks, they don’t fly.

Niolator October 12, 2010 at 7:18 AM

Yes I know but this one is supposed to have black tiles underneath to protect it from the heat at re-entry. Those tiles do not reflect much light at all. Of course it could be turned the other way for some reason.

No one would be happier than me if it actually were true as I appreciate progress in space science. Maybe I am too affected by the picture which is after all just an artists impression.

About the solar panels: Why would it need such? An awkward construction if you ask me as they take a lot of space folded and it would be harder to land with the extra weight.. Another thing: Why keep it up for so long? Wouldn’t it do just to make a few orbits and then land it? What would they gain on testing it longer? It would also heighten the risk for failure due to micrometeorites.

ilya2 October 12, 2010 at 7:57 AM

Niolator:

Sorry, did not realize you are not in US. This article gives X-37′s dimensions:

http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/air-force-x-37b-spaceplane-speculation-100412.html

8.8 m long, 2.9 m height, 4.2 m wingspan, approximately 5 tons mass. Atlas-V fairing is 5.4 m in diameter, with useful diameter 4.57 m – just enough to store X-37B. No, it was not mounted on the outside.

Tiny wings are not intended to provide prolonged lift, just to improve control during re-entry. I am sure once it enters atmosphere it descends continuously; it cannot rise.

Yes, it has black tiles, as does Space Shuttle. Shuttle always orbits up side down because all its communication gear is on top. Very likely same here. As to why it needs to be in orbit for 270 days – my guess is, that simulates a “real” mission. Whatever that is.

gopher65 October 12, 2010 at 8:29 AM

Niolator: The Columbia class shuttles can only stay in space for ~2 to 3 weeks, due partially to power restrictions (also consumables for the crew, but that doesn’t apply to this unmanned mission). Because this wee little spaceplane uses solar panels to provide some of its power, it can remain in orbit for about 3/4 of a year. That’s a huge leap forward from the in-orbit stay time of the current shuttles.

Niolator October 12, 2010 at 12:41 PM

ok, thanks for the answers. I´ll have to trust you on this one. Let´s hope it comes something useful from this project.

Surak October 12, 2010 at 1:06 PM

Wow. to remain polite, all I can say to the comment thread is … Wow.

RUF October 12, 2010 at 6:56 PM

Mabe it turned on it’s cloaking device.;)

Mularoy October 12, 2010 at 9:01 PM

Stick with gaming Niolator. Wow.

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