Pentagon Conquers Space with Its Mysterious Super-drone
La Stampa, Italy
Pentagon Conquers Space with
Its Mysterious Super-drone
By Paolo Mastrolilli
Translated By Francesca Baldanzi
06 June 2012
Edited by Becca Prashner
Italy - La Stampa - Original Article (Italian)
It was launched more than a year ago, but the commanders are not clarifying its target.
Except that it resembles a mini-space shuttle, everything else about it is a mystery. What is American space-plane X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle? What purpose does it serve? Why has it been in orbit for over a year? What did it carry on board when it was launched on March 2011? What kind of data will be brought back when it lands back on Earth, in California in mid-June?
The top-secret operation started in 1999, when NASA launched the project to design a small unmanned spacecraft. The project was an experimentation opportunity to test new technologies. The initial cost was just under $200 million. In 2004, the initiative was transferred to the legendary Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which does scientific research for the Pentagon. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is responsible for developing computer networking, among other things. From that moment on, the X-37B has been enshrouded by mystery, and most information about it has disappeared.
As a matter of fact, we know that the spacecraft ended its first mission in 2010, taking off in April and landing 224 days later on the runway of the Vandenberg base. The second mission began in March 2011 and was initially scheduled to be completed in December, but it was extended by the Pentagon with little explanation. “Keeping the X-37 in orbit” said the program director, U.S. Lieutenant-colonel Tom McIntyre, “will provide us with additional experimentation opportunities and allow us to extract the maximum value out of the mission.” Ok, but what is the mission about? The X-37B, designed by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems in its Huntington Beach, CA headquarters, is 9 meters long and 3 meters high, has a wingspan of 4.5 meters and weighs 4.990 kg. It looks like a small-scale shuttle and was originally meant to go right into the belly of a shuttle. Once this program was stopped, it became an unmanned spacecraft, which took off from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas rocket. Nobody could clarify what the spaceship is doing up there, though.
The spacecraft is too small to be a prototype for space explorations. It operates unmanned flights in low-earth orbit, around 300 km above earth with an orbital inclination of 42.79° from the equator. Since this route is nearly identical to Tiangong-1, the first Chinese space-station, where Beijing hopes to bring its astronauts by 2012, some orbital analysts suppose X-37B is probably spying on China's space program. However, several scientists dismissed this conjecture, because the speed and distance between the two objects orbiting do not allow good control.
Those who have tracked the craft’s orbit has revealed it goes past North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and, therefore, it may have to monitor these countries. Spy satellites, however, generally prefer the polar route, because it allows a more complete view of the Earth, while X-37B follows the equator. As a result, the Pentagon's story remains the only plausible version, according to which the spacecraft is a test bed for new technologies to be used elsewhere. This hypothesis does not satisfy anyone, and a new fascinating and dangerous rumor circulates: X-37B is the first orbiting weapon. It has been designed to destroy enemy satellites, and as a space-capable bomber. Is it science fiction or a new frontier of war?