It’s been a year since the U.S. Air Force launched the top secret “X-37B.” It’s a project that remains shrouded in mystery and speculation.
The X-37B resembles a small version of the space shuttle. In fact, it started as a NASA project, before being transferred to the Department of Defense in 20-04. And that’s where the mystery begins.
This is some of the only footage that has ever been released. Like the shuttle, it can be re-used. But it’s not the structure of the vehicle…but rather what’s on board that inspires intrigue. Theories include a space weapon or spy satellite, but only the government really knows.
The X-37B is unmanned which means it can spend long periods of time orbiting the earth, running experiments, and gathering data. It’s a test bed that Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard, says many companies would love to have.
“I think what happens is they fly a payload and once the payload is up there, some new wizzo camera for the CIA for example…that the customer…is going ‘well this is great data we want as much of this as we can so please keep it up as long as you can.’
According to the Air Force, several technologies including navigation control, advanced propulsion systems, and autonomous orbital flight reentry and landing are currently aboard the vehicle and being tested. But, McDowell predicts somewhat more covert experiments are also taking place.
“The sorts of things that you would want with something like this…you develop new technology sensors like new cameras, new listening devices, intelligence radio antennas, and maybe a new type of antenna dish that unfolds in a new way.”
As for the speculations about X-37B being used as a spy satellite? McDowell says they are unfounded.
If it were a space weapon you would expect it to be making extensive maneuvers, changing its orbit a lot to imitate one of them, even if it was going up an imaginary satellite, it would be changing its orbit to match orbits with that imaginary satellite. And it’s not doing that. It’s sticking in the same orbit for months at a time.
After 365 days, the Air Force hasn’t given any indication as to when the mission will end. A previous mission lasted almost two years…so it could have much more work to do.