It’s the secret space plane that no one talks about … the space shuttle with no crew … the mission with no end. The latest mission of the mysterious semi-classified X-37B robot spaceplane has passed its one-year anniversary with no celebration, no presents and no information on what it or the Defense Department would have wished for had there been a cake and candles. Will its secrets ever be revealed?
This is the fourth mission (that we can verify) of the Boeing X-37 – aka X-37B or Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). The project began at NASA in 1999 and was moved to the DoD in 2004. There were three previous known missions in 2010, 2011 and 2012, with the last one staying in orbit for 675 days before returning to a safe and secretive landing just like the others.
While the others have been secretive, OTV-4 set new standards for mysteries. Unlike previous missions, no pre-launch pictures of the spaceplane were released, leading to speculation that it’s been changed – either slightly or radically or possibly swapped with an entirely new vehicle. That question may be answered when it finally lands ... unless that’s closed to photographers as well. That landing date has not been released and the mission has already exceeded its expected 200-day length.
The “official” mission purpose was to test for NASA a new version of the electrostatic thruster (the Hall effect thruster) propelled by xenon. Other “official” projects were to test materials for NASA and conduct a second experimental propulsion system test for the US Air Force. These would be plausible if the mission ended and returned quickly so the results could be checked. However, X-37B (or whatever it is) is still in orbit.
That leads to speculation that it’s a robotic spy plane acting like a surveillance satellite in a long-term orbit. A previous mission was rumored to be spying on China’s Tiangong-1 space station module. Along the same line, it could be deploying mini cubesats designed to test new orbits for future conventional spy satellites.
Don’t like those? It could be a space weapon, possibly designed to capture satellites, destroy satellites in orbit or drop high altitude bombs. None of these activities have been detected by X-37B watchers.
Even the landing site of this mission is secretive. While Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is still the prime landing spot (the other three landed there) and Edwards Air Force Base in California is the backup site, Boeing is working to create a maintenance facility and landing site at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the X-37B is launched.
Happy one-year anniversary, X-37B … whatever you are.