The U.S. Air Force may be scandal-plagued on the ground, but in space it has managed to keep its secrets well hidden. There’s no better example than the robotic X-37B space plane which broke its own all-time endurance record on March 26, its 470th day in orbit on a mission that is still shrouded in secrecy.
Like the previous OTV-1 and OTV-2 missions, the OTV-3 (Orbital Test Vehicle 3) began with one of the two X-37B space planes launched on an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida covered with a protective shroud for secrecy.
Like the other two missions, this one is controlled by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado and will end when the X-37B lands by autopilot at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The Air Force says the objectives of the X-37B missions are to develop reusable spacecraft technologies and to perform experiments which can be brought back to Earth. With so little other information available, conspiracy theories abound.
One early theory was that it is spying on China’s space program, particularly its Tiangong-1 spacelab. This has been debunked since it only passed the spacelab twice per orbit at speeds too fast for capturing meaningful data.
Another theory is that it is a transport vehicle for secret military spy satellites. With the amount of attention and secrecy around the satellites being used to locate the missing Malaysia Flight 370, that’s a strong possibility.
It could just be the Air Force doesn’t want any of the private space companies in operation to steal their technology. Does Richard Branson look trustworthy to you?
Whatever its purpose, the endurance record and performance of the X-37B is still pretty impressive.