Top secret Air Force spacecraft returns, fueling speculation over mysterious payload
The top secret spy plane operated by the U.S. Air Force reportedly returned to Earth after spending an impressive 469 days in orbit, say mission commanders. The X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2, or OTV-2, was launched in March 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The mission ended early Saturday, fueling speculation that the mission, which Air Force commanders say remains classified, is the latest increase in the U.S.’s attempt to increase its focus on intelligence gathering from space.
In a statement released by the 30th Space Wing, the branch of the Air Force that operates and oversees such mission, officials said the OTV-2 conducted “on-orbit experiments” for 469 days during its mission, but the nature of the experiments was not revealed. Some reports speculate the experimental test vehicle is involved in intelligence gathering operations or the testing of new technologies that could be implemented in future satellites and other orbital entities.
“The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” said Air Force officials.
It remains unclear exactly what type of operations were conducted by the experimental plane during its time in orbit, but some speculate that it was used to conduct a number of mission related to U.S. national intelligence. Officials noted that one of the goals of the mission included an attempt to set a record for on-orbit duration, a record previously held by China.
“One of the goals of this mission was to see how much farther we could push the on-orbit duration,” Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B program manager, said in a statement.
The announcement comes on the same day that Chinese space agency officials announced the successful launch of a team of astronauts to a prototype space station orbiting Earth. Saturday’s launch in China included the nation’s first woman to enter space, and U.S. officials widely objected to the launch.
The Boeing-built X-37B, in development since the 1990s, was designed to operate nine months at a time between refueling and refurbishment. With just two copies of the roughly billion-dollar space plane in the inventory, the Air Force wanted to get as much mileage as possible out of each, extending the mission to over a year.
While the exact nature of the flight remains unclear, some amateur trackers noted that the craft carried an experimental spy satellite sensor judging by its low orbit and inclination, suggesting reconnaissance or intelligence gathering rather than communications. Air Force officials said they would not comment on the mission in any detail other than what has already been released.
Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who runs Jonathan’s Space Report, which tracks the world’s space launches and satellites, said it’s possible it was testing some form of new imaging.
Originally a NASA project, the space agency in 2004 transferred it to the Pentagon’s research and development arm, DARPA, and then to the secretive Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into development, but the current total spent remains a secret. When it first launched in 2006, it was lauded for its cutting-edge technologies, such as the auto de-orbit capability, thermal protection tiles, and high-temperature components and seals.
Built by Boeing Government Space Systems, a unit of the company’s satellite manufacturing area, the 11,000-pound space plane stands 9 1/2 feet tall and is just over 29 feet long, with a wingspan of less than 15 feet. It possesses two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabilizer. Once in orbit, it has solar panels that unfurl to charge batteries for electrical power, said engineers familiar with the project.
The vehicle has been in space since March 2011, hitching a ride aboard an Atlas 5 rocket.