The US military started its 4th top secret mission in space by launching the robotic X-37B space plane in the Earth’s orbit on 20th May 2015. More than 500 days later, the drone is still out there, orbiting the Earth, conducting its mission. The solar powered, unmanned plane has caught the public eye and the conspiracy theorists’ attention, just as it was the case with the previous 3 missions.
What’s the mission?
I think that nobody really knows, but there are a million and one wild guesses. Is it spying on other countries? Is it supposed to interfere with the signal of other satellites? Is it keeping tabs on the Chinese space station? Or maybe it’s part of the Pentagon secret research into drone-based weapons.
Until the government comes out and confesses what this top secret mission actually is, there’s no telling what the drone is doing up there for 500 days. What is known is that it has been carrying several payloads during its lengthy mission and a couple of them have been identified.
Firstly, it’s transported a few electric propulsion devices from the Air Force and private aerospace and defense company Aerojet Rocketdyne. Additionally, it has collateral from NASA’s advanced materials investigation on board, which aims to test how the space environment affects certain materials.
During last month’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ meeting, Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for Space said that this was a very useful way to test out things.
Back in April 2010, during the first mission of this kind, named OTV-4 mission (or Orbital Test Vehicle-4), the public became intrigued and suspicious. The situation was further aggravated when a couple of amateur observers said that they noticed the space plane flying over the same area every 4 days.
The New York Times reported in May 2010:
“In interviews and statements, Pentagon leaders strongly denied that the winged plane had anything to do with space weapons, even while conceding that its ultimate goal was to aid terrestrial war fighters with a variety of ancillary missions.”
In a vague statement from the Air Force it was said that the secret mission has “no offensive capabilities,” and that “The program supports technology risk reduction, experimentation, and operational concept development.”
The second OTV-4 mission was launched on 5 March 2011 and the drone spent a total of 468 days in orbit, while the third mission included X-37B spending approximately 675 days in orbit. The fourth may very well exceed even the third and spend much more time in space.
We may very well never find out what X-37B’s mission really is but at least we can see the capabilities of prolonged solar-powered flight.
The Air Force states that the total amount of time the first three OTV-4 missions spent in orbit amounts to 1,367 days. During this time they were able to successfully demonstrate its reusable flight, reentry, and landing technologies. As much as we are suspicious regarding the nature of these missions we have to admit that we desperately need these solid automated landing techniques for exploring the surfaces of other planets.
The good news is that if this drone is really spying on China’s out-of-control Tiangong-2 space lab, we might get an insight on where bits of it might land after it burns up in the atmosphere. This could be useful information, right?