Amateur Astronomers Spy on Air Force’s Secret Mini Space Plane


The US Air Force’s unmanned mini space shuttle has been located and tracked in orbit by a contingent of amateur astronomers, and now you can see the X37-B for yourself.

The spaceplane was spotted independently by amateur satellite watchers Greg Roberts of Cape Town, South Africa, and Kevin Fetter of Brockville, Canada, on May 20. Another satellite watcher, Ted Molczan, of Toronto, Canada was then able to calculate the spacecraft’s actual orbit. Then, from that data, Fetter was able to find the X37-B again the following night and photograph it flying across the starry sky. See more images on, and this movie of the X37-B in orbit, as seen by Fetter.

Click here to find out use’s satellite tracking tool to find out if the X37-B will be flying over your backyard.

They also have an iPhone app.

Spotters say the space plane is about as bright as some of the stars in the Big Dipper, at +2.8 magnitude or so.

If you capture an image of the X37-B in orbit, send it to us, or submit it on’s site.

Just what is the mission of this secret mini space shuttle? There’s been lots of speculation, but read our previous article based on facts here.


19 Replies to “Amateur Astronomers Spy on Air Force’s Secret Mini Space Plane”

  1. It will be interesting to see whether the X-37B changes its orbit over time. I am surprised to see how visible it is as I had assumed it would fly with the ‘dark side’ down.. i.e. with its black ablative material earth facing.

  2. I still don’t understand what the Air Force is doing in space, there aren’t any impoverished people to kill up there.

  3. Of course as soon as it flies “dark side down” or payload bay side up, first, that stop’s it from Earth snooping and second, amateur astronomers will race each other to be the first to snap the X-37B with using IR filters.

    Now if only the Russian Federal Space Agency would kindly oblige by reinstating the reusable MAKS space plane, then we have a friendly little space race and the X-37B’s development will really be pushed along.

    Good work Greg, Kevin, Ted for the images and for the flyby by zipcode page and UT for following up 🙂 .

  4. Spying, testing technology, learning new maneuvers and tactics… or just being badass about flying rocketships over your head. There are lots of good reasons for the “Air Force” to be in space. At least until there is enough activity up there to spinoff a new branch of the armed forces.

    Security is as vital to mankind as food and water. Would seem a bit naive to think we’d go to the stars and leave the guns behind.

  5. Security is as vital to mankind as food and water.

    Actually knowing about food and water is part of national and mankind security, because of resource problems and resource competition. So it makes sense to have military working in space, whether on civilian interest areas or specific military areas.

  6. Reading this post reminded me of the long history of amateur contributions to ‘rocket science’, specifically the Moonwatch program from the 50’s and 60’s. Per wikipedia:

    “For the opening months of the Space Age, members of Moonwatch were the only organized world-wide network that was prepared to spot and help track satellites [6]. The information they provided was complemented by the radio tracking program called Minitrack the United States Navy operated as well as some information from amateur radio buffs.

    In many cases, Moonwatch teams also had the responsibility of communicating news of Sputnik and the first American satellites to the public. The public responded, in turn, with infectious enthusiasm as local radio stations aired times to spot satellites and local and national newspapers ran hundreds of articles that described the nighttime activities of Moonwatchers.”

    Good to see that kind of dedication (and greatly enhanced technology!) exists today. Thanks go to Nancy and Spaceweather for reporting on this story that bears repeating.

  7. @Astrofiend

    Well, if you’re very good, eat your veggies, clean your room, and enlist in the USAF….

  8. @Torbjorn:

    Very true.
    Even if rockets were dirt cheap and simple to fly, soldiers would still be in the exploration business to secure the best watering holes for their nation and enforce the laws of society.

    Historically, being the vanguard of society on any new frontier is just one of those things a military is meant to do.

  9. @ Maxwell and Torbjorn: Yes of course security is vital to all people but flying secret military missions in space only encourages others to do the same and ultimately it destabilises international security and creates an atmosphere of paranoia.

  10. Secretly?
    First off: Apparently our idea of secrecy sucks when its being covered on international tv. They just don’t want to tell you what they’re doing at the moment, and its not like any military in the world is in the habit of telling you what the do from day to day. Even if they are only going to the corner store to buy milk, They just don’t.

    Secondly: If you want secrecy, how about Chinas anti satellite missile tests or the Russians mounting a 23mm cannon on the outside of their early space stations as a means for fighting off borders?
    Assuming you don’t count thousands of nukes mounted on rockets as space militarization, Space will be militarized further if we have a part in it or not.
    The only reason its not crawling with fighting vehicles now is because the main players aren’t in a shooting war over anything in space that would necessitate them.

    Right now its like the early days of flight where biplanes were only observation platforms.
    No one can expect that truce to last as more nations get involved and our use of space grows from a sideshow to being the main event.

    The military, who had a big hand in advancing space travel and who dominated the field in the years before NASA, wants to keep in the practice of flying its own ships.
    Anyone who wants us to be paranoid about that probably has their own insidious agenda to hide.

  11. Just because the Air Force chooses not to tell us why thy fly the X37-B does not mean that no good reason exists. They have the responsibility for your safety, whether you believe they operate in good faith or not. It is arrogant to assume that they can have no good reason for doing what they do simply because you cannot figure out what that reason might be.

    It is therefore less than intelligent to post stories and photos of the X37-B in operation. It might not compromise your own safety, but then again, it might. Considering that the US acts as a traffic cop for the entire world, undermining the US Air Force efforts might compromise the security of any person in the world, US citizen or not. Then again, it might not. But publishing the stories and the photos means that you are deciding for everyone else in the world what is safe and what is not, and you are making that decision with no hard data.

  12. USAF has the role of providing Aerospace Defense… this is what it is doing in space.
    Just a few items the USAF has and controls in space: The oddball thing called GPS for navigation; these satellites also have the capability to capture heat signatures on rockets (or ballistic missiles–take your pick) when they launch.
    There is also military communication satellites, some intel and ground watching satellites(although most are NRO or NGA owned), and also Air Force Weather Agency has a few up there to see not only what the Earth’s atmosphere is doing, but to watch a star which is rather close to us.
    There are some other things, but we’d have to kill you after you learned about them!

  13. There is also the rumor, that some NASCAR teams are working on getting funding to move the sport into LEO, and race there as well (have to get the jump before Indy or Grand Prix does it!).
    The USAF team is just getting a head start on this new motor…err.. spacesport!

  14. It is therefore less than intelligent to post stories and photos of the X37-B in operation.

    From launch, to orbit, to landing, the X37-B is clearly in plain sight and therefore in the public domain as a topic of interest to space enthusiasts.

    Discussion on this topic is made easier thanks to official resources such as the USAF 45th Space Wing twitter feed courtesy of what you describe as the “world traffic cop” and of course this forum which enables you to contribute your view.

    Since the X37-B, like all X-craft, is intended as a technology demonstrator and so much of world commerce depends on space based communications and technologies, wouldn’t it be “less than intelligent” not to discuss the X37-B and it’s potential?

  15. Maddad…
    I haven’t seen anyone who has compromised the X37 project one bit by publishing pictures, orbiting information, etc. At least yet; and barring someone inside the project I doubt anyone in the general public will be able to.

    The USAF is aware individuals would be able to track the vehicle, they new approximately how bright it would be etc… and this is just the general public.
    China and Russia both have better means to track the vehicle, again something which is known, and whatever they find out they wont reveal… since it would give us an idea of their capabilities.

    Want to know what they are doing? What would you do if it was yours on its first flight? 🙂

  16. The First i know of or seen actual photos taken of the X37B Air Force Space Plane in detail While in Orbit!!!!,The Orbit has been established an is only 2 minutes fast..I tracked the X37B manualy with my telescopes handcontroler..I had a CanonT1i prime focus on a 2 inch diagonal…the pass was listed at, 2146pm est, Orlando,FL,USA from the south west to the north east,It crossed next to Mars an headed to the handle of the Big Dipper on a 71 degree pass..I have one more night to catch it tomorrow/tonight 5-27-10 at 2055pm est, it will pass the Bright red star to the East called Arcturus comming from the West..It will be the last time i can try an catch it for couple weeks as it grows dimmer to mag 6 an won’t be in the Sun… This Photo taken 5-26-10,9:48pm Est.,Orlando,FL,USA

  17. Great photography there @HelloBozos! So you did that with an 8″ scope eh? Nottah too bad…. Now if only you could capture it rendezvousing with another spacecraft.. say something disk shaped? LOL!

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