Now that the X-37B space plane is spotted, what is its mission?
Amateur astronomers say they have found the X-37B in an orbit that takes it over Afghanistan and Iraq. A former Air Force missile officer offers up four possible uses for the space plane – and weapon is least likely.
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“That’s [a time period] measured in several days, or maybe 10, 15 days or less, something like that,” said Mr. Payton in April.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures The X-37 space plane
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But an Atlas V launch, combined with weeks in space, is awfully expensive just to test the X-37B. The spacecraft surely will have another purpose, and it’s likely the Air Force is currently testing the system’s performance in that unknown capacity, as well.
Brian Weedan, a former Air Force missile officer who is currently a technical advisor on space issues at the Secure World Foundation, has compiled a list of possible missions for the X-37B. Beginning with roles that are most likely, and moving through those that are less so, it runs like this:
SENSOR TESTER. Almost certainly the X-37B is carrying sensors that are either being used on current US spy satellites, or are being evaluated for future use. These could include space-based radar, optical spy sensors, and signals eavesdropping equipment. A reusable space plane would be a handy test bed to measure the performance of stuff that has work as advertised once it is in orbit on a satellite.
SATELLITE DEPLOYER. The X-37B, like the Space Shuttle, has a cargo bay that opens up, making it possible for the vehicle to serve as a sort of glorified pick-up truck that carries satellites into space and then kicks them out into orbit. The Air Force’s Payton noted in April that the system was capable of carrying two satellites that weigh several hundred kilograms each.
REPAIR VAN. The X-37B might be able to rendezvous with malfunctioning satellites, grab them with a crane arm, load them in its cargo bay, and bring them back to earth for refurbishment. Spy satellites can be expensive and delicate, so such a capability could be important to the US. However, as Mr. Weedon of the Secure World Foundation notes, the X-37B’s orbital height is limited, and the actual rendezvous with any broken satellite could be tricky.
WEAPON. Though many critics have worried that the X-37B might be a step towards the weaponization of space, the chance that it is a strike weapon itself are close to “zero,” according to Weedon. While it could be steered to hit almost any area on earth, it glides slowly to a landing, traveling in a straight line, and thus would be easy to shoot down.
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