The X-37B has become a blank canvas for which scientific and paranoid minds alike have painted their technological dreams and nightmares. With its long awaited return from space this morning, we’re still left wondering: What the hell has this thing been doing up in orbit for almost two years?
This most recent mission by the pint-sized, 29 foot long space plane was launched December 11, 2012, resulting in a grand total of 675 days circling the globe. The X-37B’s endurance has progressively grown since its first flight in 2010 when it initially clocked an eye opening 225 days in orbit, followed by another launch in 2011 that totaled 469 days. The orbiters themselves are launched atop Atlas V rockets out of Cape Canaveral.
The long endurance, reusable space drone has been accused of doing many things, including mundane research into unmanned re-usable space vehicles, visually spying on an as yet to be completed Chinese space station, containing quick strike weapons for time sensitive targets, flying up to satellites to fix, refuel or disable them in a ‘hands on’ fashion, testing lasers that can blind enemy spy satellites, and even deploying “quantum dots” for use as an anti-satellite weapon countermeasure. Above all these potential missions, carrying experimental reconnaissance payloads into low-earth orbit is probably the most plausible of the bunch.
The truth is, when it comes to the X-37B and its pickup truck-sized payload bay, all of these things are possible, although some are much more likely than others. And that’s precisely why the X-37B is a game changing piece of hardware, because it theoretically could do all these things and more.
Could the X-37B, or a craft like it, be capable of even capturing a small enemy satellite in orbit and returning it to the US? Why not? Theoretically the X-37B could fly up to the object, take meticulous pictures and measurements of it using optical, laser and radar sensors, then a second flight could be prepared to actually go disable and capture the enemy satellite and fly it back to earth fully intact for inspection.
Basically, having an unmanned recoverable spacecraft with a payload bay allows military and space planners to come up with totally new and unique missions that were completely unfeasible in the past unless they were executed by the predominantly civilian controlled and comparatively expensive Space Shuttle. Additionally, the Space Shuttle was high-profile and it could only stay in orbit for a fraction of the time that an X-37B can. So even if the X-37B’s most recent mission was to test some new cutting edge optical surveillance device, it’s the promise a system like it, perhaps scaled up drastically, represents that really matters.
As for the future, there is little doubt that the USAF will continue to fly their X-37Bs, and it has been announced that two out of three of the Shuttle’s old Orbiter Processing Facility hangars at Kennedy Spaceport will be used to refurbish and prep the X-37B fleet for flight.
Additionally, Kennedy’s massive Shuttle Landing Facility runway will be used to recover some future X-37B missions. Beyond that, a larger, 48 foot long X-37C has been proposed, including a manned variant. Regardless of the potential of the X-37C turning into a people mover, the USAF has to be salivating at the possibility of a larger, more capable version of their beloved robotic space plane becoming a reality.
It is clear that the X-37B is no longer really an experiment and is here to stay. Now, with the program growing in size and in cost, will the USAF finally disclose some details as to what its shy drone’s mission truly is?
Images via Boeing
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com