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.