Mysterious robotic plane hits 500 days in space; what's it doing?

Apr 27, 2014
An artists’ conception of the X-37B in Earth orbit. Credit: U.S. Air Force.

A robotic space plane is speeding in low Earth orbit at this very moment. Some say it's a weapon; others, a data-gathering mission. There's one fact most agree on as the plane hits 500 days in space: Its real purpose is a mystery.

The Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Space Vehicle, constructed in California, is one-fourth the size of the Endeavour Space Shuttle.

The Air Force craft, purely a test vehicle that will never reach production, in part aims to explore reusable space-vehicle technologies. That means the robotic vehicle can land, but no one will say when.

What could it be?

"That question implies that it has a single, rational mission. And I don't think it does," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "I think it was basically just intended to bewilder the Chinese."

Others speculate the craft could be some sort of intelligence-gathering tool. The Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit based in Broomfield, Colo., published a 2010 report on the craft. It speculated the space plane's most likely purpose was for intelligence gathering and said the vessel had a low probability of other uses, such as satellite repair.

Whatever its real purpose, the X-37B has very real capabilities. It travels low in orbit, staying around 110 to 500 miles above the Earth at a cruising speed of about 17,500 mph. It's equipped with special heat-shield tiles for re-entry, which are billed by Boeing as tougher than Endeavour's.

And this isn't the first time the craft has launched, either.

On April 22, 2010, the X-37B rode a rocket into the sky before landing Dec. 3. It took off again Dec. 11, 2012, and the plane has now been circling the planet for 500 days.

The Air Force launched a second craft of the same model May 5, 2011. It landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on June 16, 2012.

To Pike, the craft's purpose is all about keeping the United States the most technologically advanced nation in the world.

"There are two things we can do to keep it that way. One, do things that keep us ahead of them (technologically), and another way is to do things that bewilder them and cause them to waste money," Pike said. "The program has been around for a long time and at one time or another has gotten funding from just about everyone in Washington."

But the government's treatment of the project poses questions. Though it's advertised as a secret project, Boeing releases pictures and more than two pages of details on the X-37B. In contrast, the secret, super-fast Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was not declassified until decades after it had been used in the Vietnam War.

Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists and an expert on secrecy, said the publicity of the craft raises many questions and provides few answers.

"It's a puzzle," he said. "Generally speaking, there are a couple of ways that the secrecy of the program could be justified: if disclosure enabled adversaries to defeat the program, or to diminish its effectiveness, or if it made it possible for others to replicate the technology."

It's not clear when that puzzle will be solved or when the true purpose of the somewhat secret project will be unveiled.

"It's a wilderness of mirrors," Pike said.

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baudrunner
1.5 / 5 (8) Apr 27, 2014
They ought to move this thing into a polar orbit so that it can investigate the mysterious Black Knight satellite, obviously not of natural origin and discovered through radar detection by early space junkies in 1954, pretty remarkable considering that Sputnik was launched 1957.
Lex Talonis
1.4 / 5 (9) Apr 27, 2014
It was designed to carry nukes into space, to drop into a very low orbit - lay some countries / cities to waste, and then go back into a higher orbit.

It's all part of the Americans plan to control who has access to space and space weaponry.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (6) Apr 27, 2014
"most likely purpose was for intelligence gathering and said the vessel had a low probability of other uses, such as satellite repair."

-Well perhaps it's for repairing intelligence-gathering satellites.

There's lots of things this can do. As military hardware it provides offensive capability against enemy sats. It can haul all sorts of things into orbit including weapons if the need arises. It provides capabilities that adversaries are eventually going to have, and so it behooves us to have them first..

Imagine one loitering a few miles from the future Chinese space station. An essential capability
xyz2099
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 27, 2014
We have a need for a backup data-link system for sky net that would be consolidated with extensive shielding against solar storms which would knock out the comsats currently in orbit, We would still have control of our nuclear arsenal and worldwide communication system with the x-37B even if sky net goes down.
Sinister1812
1 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2014
So that's where MH370 went...

Possible connection?
ThomasQuinn
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 28, 2014
We have a need for a backup data-link system for sky net that would be consolidated with extensive shielding against solar storms which would knock out the comsats currently in orbit, We would still have control of our nuclear arsenal and worldwide communication system with the x-37B even if sky net goes down.


Sky net? Are you seriously crazy, or just 11 years old?
alfie_null
5 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2014
We have a need for a backup data-link system for sky net that would be consolidated with extensive shielding against solar storms which would knock out the comsats currently in orbit, We would still have control of our nuclear arsenal and worldwide communication system with the x-37B even if sky net goes down.

What's the difference between low earth orbit and geosync? What would you guess is the X-37B's communications window if it were talking directly to ground stations? How much world wide communication (e.g. the Internet) do you believe goes through satellites?
bluehigh
4.5 / 5 (8) Apr 28, 2014
It can haul all sorts of things into orbit including weapons


There's options for launch of payloads heavier, quicker and cheaper.

What this vehicle can do is return payloads safely.
Sinister1812
1 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2014
It's all part of the Americans plan to control who has access to space and space weaponry.


I'm thinking the same thing. It definitely has a military purpose. It probably has something to do with weapons or spying on foreign nations.
antialias_physorg
4.7 / 5 (10) Apr 28, 2014
There's one fact most agree on as the plane hits 500 days in space: Its real purpose is a mystery.

The real answer: It's a software bug and they can't get it back down.

Seriously though: for such a longtime military mission it's hard to find a reason. Only thing that comes to my mind: testing the prolonged viability under space conditions of bacteriological/chemical agents to be launched from low orbit platforms. But that is a tenuous theory at best.
LENR4you
1 / 5 (4) Apr 28, 2014
It is a test for a sort of EM-Drive ( http://en.wikiped.../EmDrive )
powered by a embedded LENR NiH Stirling engine (lenrproof.com).
Accounts
not rated yet Apr 28, 2014
I just want to know if it has life support.
hemitite
3 / 5 (2) Apr 28, 2014
It's there to serve as an emergency restroom facility for Air Force astronauts on super secrete missions!
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2014
There's options for launch of payloads heavier, quicker and cheaper
But not more flexibly. This can loiter for months with its cargo and then take it to a location for deployment.
What this vehicle can do is return payloads safely.
"Last year at Space 2011, a conference organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), an X-37B derivatives plan was sketched out by Arthur Grantz, chief engineer in the Experimental Systems Group at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems in Seal Beach, Calif.

"Grantz detailed a vision for the spacecraft to support space station cargo deliveries and for a scaled-up version to carry astronauts into orbit."

"In Grego's view, what the X-37B seems to be optimized for is carrying cargo, but not people, up to space and back down with a nice, graceful runway landing... One unique capability is to carry a payload back to a particular base on Earth. This may be useful for testing and development of space hardware"
Sinister1812
not rated yet Apr 29, 2014
The three military personnel doing the downvoting here know the true purpose of this top-secret Boeing X-37B.

Maybe they could share it with the rest of us.
Protoplasmix
1 / 5 (2) Apr 29, 2014
Nikola Tesla's claim that he developed technology which would make war obsolete is still a mystery despite the fact all his other advancements and predictions were over a century ahead of their time. Fifty years of additional research and billions of dollars spent on the Strategic Defense Initiative say so. And the civilian oversight of the war machine works great thanks to the integrity of men like Oliver North and James Clapper, who can be trusted to do the right thing in the face of civilian ignorance.

…To each his suffering: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.
--Thomas Gray
Rosser
5 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2014
This article is a complete waste of time. You might as well speculate on the motivation of a cat. Whatever the Air Force is doing is known only to them. Most of the comments on this article don't even bear on the discussion. Being cleaver is not the same as being informed.
rockwolf1000
5 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2014
This article is a complete waste of time. You might as well speculate on the motivation of a cat. Whatever the Air Force is doing is known only to them. Most of the comments on this article don't even bear on the discussion. Being cleaver is not the same as being informed.


I agree. It's much better to be smart than to be a chopping implement for meat.
Protoplasmix
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 29, 2014
Being clever is not the same as being informed.

Correct; you've highlighted the difference between wisdom and knowledge. Any way you cleave it, ignorance sucks. And national security (for the nations of the planet) will never be more than propaganda and storm troopers, without transparency and healthy democratic discourse.
Say What_
not rated yet May 01, 2014
I'm puzzled by the claim that the SR-71 wasn't declassified "until decades after it had been used in the Vietnam War". Its existence was actually revealed by President Johnson before it even became operational, in 1964. If I remember correctly, it was depicted and described in the 1965 edition of 'The Observer's Book of Aircraft'.

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