Boeing’s unmanned space vehicle, the X-37B (also known by its prototype designation, OTV-1), launched in April. Its top-secret mission and undisclosed capabilities have engendered plentiful speculation from amateur astronomers, space-policy enthusiasts and arms-control activists alike. Recently, however, the spacecraft pulled off a new trick: a vanishing act.
The robotic space plane, which looks like a scaled-down version of the space shuttle and has the approximate payload capacity of a standard-bed pickup truck, disappeared July 29 until it was spotted again Aug. 14. While it would be cool if the X-37B’s mysterious disappearance was due to a Star Trek-style cloaking device, amateur astronomers say it’s likely due to a minuscule change in the spacecraft’s orbit.
According to Ted Molczan of SatObs.org, a group of volunteer astronomers tracking the X-37B, “The ~0.5 min increase in period, results in more than a 7 min per day divergence in the predicted time of passage, so despite the small size of the maneuver, a planar search was required to recover it. This small change of orbit may have been a test of OTV-1’s manoeuvring system, or a requirement of whatever payload may be aboard, or both.”
It looks like we’ve seen the first test of the X-37B’s on board rocket motors in action. The craft’s massive built-in fuel tanks suggest that maneuverability in orbit is a priority for whatever missions the spacecraft is built to accomplish. From its payload bay, though, it’s clear that the craft is at least capable of launching satellites into orbit
When China flexed its counter-satellite capabilities in 2007 by blowing a weather satellite out of the sky, Harvard’s Jeffrey Lewis wrote that “The Bush folks have been fond of saying … ‘there is no arms race in space.’ Well, we have one now.”
An unmanned craft like the X-37B would make it faster, cheaper and easier to replace any piece of critical infrastructure without risking any astronauts’ lives.
Also, aside from rival nations with space capabilities, the increasing amount of space debris in low orbit created as old orbital infrastructure decays poses an increasing threat to the stability of America’s orbital communications network. Presently, cutting-edge shielding technology used on satellites and the International Space Station only protects against debris less than one centimeter in diameter. Anything larger than that, and a spacecraft has to maneuver to avoid it.
As new nations join the space-faring club, the amount of metallic junk whizzing around the earth at ballistic speeds will become more and more of a practical consideration, and the military will likely need to replace secret communications and spy satellites more frequently, a job made easier by the X-37B’s apparent capacity to elude tracking systems for weeks at a time by adjusting its orbit.
Finally, the spacecraft’s 270-day operational capacity means it could easily disappear from tracking, launch a satellite, go about its business, and recover the satellite before anyone on earth detects it. his is a big change from the days when NASA would launch secret cargo from the space shuttle, only to have it tracked by every amateur astronomer across the world.
Across the board, dangerous tasks carried out by America’s military are being shifted to robots, from explosive ordnance disposal to airborne surveillance and reconnaissance. Although it’s great that the military has developed a craft that will take dangerous tasks like satellite maintenance and replacement out of the hands of astronauts, it shouldn’t come at the expense of manned spaceflight.
As Neil Armstrong wrote in April, “America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space. If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal.”