Why Is This Top Secret Space Plane Orbiting Earth?

In May 2019, amateur space photographer and aeronautics journalist Ralf Vandebergh spotted a mysterious space plane orbiting Earth Since then, Vandebergh and the rest of the scientific community have been trying to track the aircraft and discover what exactly it is doing up there

Even though Vandebergh tracked down the plane, he wasn’t able to capture it on camera until early July Surprisingly, as Vandebergh said, ""When I tried to observe it again mid-June, it didn't meet the predicted time and path It turned out to have manoeuvred to another orbit [However] thanks to the amateur satellite observers' network, it was rapidly found in orbit again, and I was able to take some images on June 30th and July 2nd"" This begs the question, why did the aircraft change orbit? Well, no one’s sure yet

The US Air Force acknowledged the plane was one of their own According to them, it is the X-37B craft, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, that was launched into Earth orbit on September 7th 2017 The US Air Force doesn’t avoid talking about the plane, but keeps its mission classified and uses very general terms when referring to it So, what do we know about the mysterious X-37B military aircraft? The X-37B project began in 1999 NASA selected Boeing Integrated Defense System to develop the vehicle

Over the course of four years, the project cost a total of $192 million The main financial contribution came from NASA, while the US Air Force invested only $16 million The plane was originally designed to be carried into orbit by the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay, but when it was determined the shuttle flight would be uneconomical it underwent a redesign, and it was ultimately transferred to the Air Force in 2004 It was at this point that the project was classified top secret The X-37B space plane is currently on its fifth mission

Its first mission, OTV-1, began on April 22nd 2010 and it returned after 224 days in orbit OTV-2 began on March 5th 2011 and lasted 468 days in orbit, while OTV-3 almost reached 675 days in orbit in 2014 OTV-4, launched in May 2015, extended the record to 718 days But on August 26th 2019 the record was beaten again by OTV-5 Initially designed for an orbit window of 270 days, the aircraft has currently reached more than 750 days in space, and it is hard to determine exactly when it will land on Earth

However, the next X-37B mission, OTV-6, is scheduled for December 2019 Presumably OTV-5 should be completed by then The OTVs were fabricated at several Boeing locations in Southern California The space plane looks like a miniature version of NASA’s old space shuttle orbiter It is 8

8 metres long and 29 metres tall, with a wingspan of nearly 46 metres According to US Air Force, the X-37B's primary objectives are to research reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space, and to conduct experiments that can be returned to, and examined, on Earth But then, why are they not totally open about the space plane program? Is it possible the mission's real goal is different to its official purpose? And if so, what could it be? Since 2012, the editor of Spaceflight magazine, David Baker, has supported rumours that the US is using the aircraft to test spy sensors, studying how they fare against radiation and other space hazards

The X-37B has orbited over some critical locations for US national security, such as North Korea, China, Russia, territory held by Daesh, and Iran Baker believes the plane has been observing outer space endeavours by the USA’s biggest rivals He says ""Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China's nascent space station"" Since the China National Space Administration has made great strides in the past decade, much as Russian space corporation Roscosmos, it may make sense for the US government to cast their gaze upon its competitors

However, US optical spy satellites are usually quite large, while the X-37B planes are rather small, which suggests the space plane may have a different purpose Other speculations suggest that the Air Force might be using the X-37B for weapons research Aerospace Expert Eric Sterner believes that, “You can put sensors in [the X-37B], satellites in there, [or] you could stick munitions in there” For its part, Air Force denies that the X-37B project has ever involved any offensive capabilities Instead it points out that overtly arming a spacecraft would be a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty

“Overtly” may be a key word here The administration of US President Donald Trump has been openly pushing for a separate military branch for space operations He has promised a new generation of orbital systems, including missile defences, that could actually break the old ban on space-based weaponry On this basis, it’s no wonder that internet theories claim the X-37B is, in fact, a form of nuclear space bomber, loaded with nuclear bombs, or Rods from God: kinetic energy projectiles dropped from space that accelerate to hypersonic speeds, obliterating their targets on Earth So, what is the X-37B space plane really doing up above us? Can we trust official Air Force statements, and believe the program's only aim is to test new space technologies? Or will power games and military strategy overpower scientific research and, perhaps, pave the way for a new kind of warfare? Hopefully, when we find out the answer, it won't be too late

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