An experimental space plane landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on Sunday. According to the US military, the X-37B completed a classified mission that lasted nearly two years. This space plane has been a topic of frequent conjecture, about its possible military uses, especially its probable role in surveillance or in combat. The US Air Force has said that the program includes the testing of several technologies, from guidance and control to thermal protection and advanced propulsion systems. The Boeing-built space plane had blasted off in May 2015 and it is one of two in the Air Force fleet. It conducted unspecified experiments for over 700 days while in orbit.
The US Air Force’s unmanned space plane has flown four clandestine missions till now, where it carried secret payloads on long-duration flights in Earth orbit. According to various reports, it was the fourth and longest mission till now, for the secretive program which is managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. It is the same office which described the mission as developing “combat support and weapon systems by leveraging defense-wide technology development efforts and existing operational capabilities.”
Meanwhile, there have been reports in many newspapers, where people had suggested that the craft had something to do with space weapons, which the Pentagon denied. According to a New York Times report, Gary E. Payton, under secretary of the Air Force for space programs had earlier said such secretive efforts have no offensive capabilities, but rather they are aimed towards ‘experimentation, operational concept development and risk reduction’.
The Pentagon has consistently denied over the years that X-37B missions test space weapon capabilities. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base had issued a statement describing the aim of the mission: “…Secure comms, [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], missile warning, weather prediction, precision navigation and timing all rely on [space science], and the domain is increasingly contested.”
Meanwhile, Astrophysicist and astronomer Jonathan McDowell had told NPR there are around 20 to 25 “full-fledged spy satellites or other really secret vehicles” that orbit Earth. National Public Radio also reported that some civilian satellite spotters have been able to track the plane as it orbits Earth. It has added fuel to the theories that it aids surveillance programs. The report said that trackers had found that at least one mission before this had followed an orbit that took it over countries that included Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In May 2010, Tom Burghardt wrote for Space Daily that the X-37B could be used as a spy satellite or to deliver weapons from space.
From all such reports, ‘spy plane’ appears to be the most likely theory. Back in 2010, The New York Times wrote that there were “clues that suggest the military craft is engaged in the development of spy satellites rather than space weapons, which some experts have suspected but the Pentagon strongly denies.” A magazine called Popular Mechanics claimed backed the theory and said that ‘this theory could be correct’. It wrote: “A group of civilian satellite spotters tracking the second X-37B noted that the space plane’s orbit takes it over countries including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In October 2014, The Guardian published a report citing security experts who claimed that the X-37B was being used “to test reconnaissance and spy sensors, particularly how they hold up against radiation and other hazards of orbit.
Meanwhile, there have been several other theories about what the ‘secret mission’ could be, including ‘Space Bomber’ and ‘Anti-Satellite weapon’. The Space Bomber theory was debunked by Secure World Foundation, where is said the feasibility of such a system is Zero, while Popular Mechanics’ succinct theory on it was ‘Forget it’. On the Anti-Satellite weapon theory, SWF had said, there already are other platforms like the MiTEx and XSS-11 which have such capabilities. Meanwhile, another interesting theory has been going on for a while, that the place could be used for troop transport. Popular Science said, “It might ferry future troops into battle, taking them very high and then sending them back to Earth very fast.”
Interestingly, in 2012, The Register claimed that the US ‘space warplane’ may be spying on Chinese spacelab Tiangong-1. However, Former U.S. Air Force orbital analyst Brian Weeden later refuted this claim, and told IBT, that the different orbits of the two spacecraft precluded any practical surveillance fly-bys.
Interestingly Nasa had also joined the X-37B experiment, where it has been sending material samples like thermal coatings, ink and window substitutes, up in the shuttle’s payload. The Guardian said that the Nasa experiment will test how such materials withstand the hazards of space, such as radiation and extreme temperatures. Meanwhile, Major General Tom Masiello, the commander of the air force research laboratory, space and missile systems centre, told The Guardian, that the mission is aimed to test a wide range of technologies.