On March 5, 2011, the U.S. Air Force launched the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle into low Earth orbit. After more than a year in space, it’s finally returning to Earth. But what was it doing up there in the first place?
What is the X-37B Space Plane?
The current X-37B mission is scheduled to end in mid-June. It’s the second of at least three such missions. The first one took flight on April 22, 2010 and landed December 3, 2010. A third mission is expected to launch later this Fall.
We don’t know much about the X-37B. We know it generates power via a solar panel. We also know its payload bay is roughly the size of a pickup truck bed. We know it contains new technologies which are being tested. But its exact purpose and the nature of its payload remain a mystery. In fact, no one outside the Air Force seems to know what it’s doing in space. But hey, at least we know it’s been a success.
“Although I can’t talk about mission specifics, suffice it to say this mission has been a spectacular success.” ~ General William Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command
So, there’s that. Anyway, numerous conspiracy theories regarding the X-37B’s true purpose have arisen to fill the void. Here’s just a few of them:
- Space Bomber: This would seem like the most logical choice. However, the X-37B is an orbital vehicle, not a suborbital one. And shifting orbital planes apparently requires a great deal of thrust and thus, fuel. Then again, the X-37B has been floating around for over a year so this might not be such a big deal.
- Spy Plane: In January, an article in Spaceflight magazine claimed the X-37B was secretly spying on China’s Tiangong 1 space laboratory. However, this has been widely criticized. They only cross orbits in two places. So, if the X-37B is spying on Tiangong, it’s pretty limited. At the same time, some conceptual artwork of the space plane shows a small telescope. And the X-37B’s orbit takes it over numerous countries in the Middle East. So, a spy plane seems like a decent possibility.
- Testing Spy Satellites: This is an offshoot of the “Spy Plane” theory. It’s bolstered by the fact that the X-37B passes over the same region every four days, a pattern suggesting “U.S. imaging reconnaissance satellites.”
- Anti-Satellite Technology: According to Bill Sweetman, editor-in-chief of Aviation Week’s Defense Technology International, the X-37B might include “more than one way to put an enemy satellite out of orbit.” He specifically mentions the possibility of spraying an enemy satellite with black paint, and thus causing it to overheat.
- Space Experiments: Perhaps the X-37B is just an experimental vehicle, testing materials to see how they operate when exposed to space.
Of course, the X-37B could also be something else entirely, something completely outside the realms of our imagination. There’s just no way to be sure. So, for now, all we can do is continue to speculate as to the X-37B’s true purpose…as well as why it requires such intense secrecy.