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What Exactly Is the Air Force's Secret Space Drone Up To?

The rest of the world isn't thrilled about classified experiments taking place 200 miles up.

by Adam Clark Estes
Dec 11 2012, 7:30pm

Just a couple of hours ago, the Air Force launched its futuristic and very expensive space drone, the Boeing X-37B, into orbit. We know a few things about the X-37B's top secret mission. It'll fly roughly 200 miles into the heavens before settling into orbit, where it will stay for nearly a year. The spacecraft itself is 29 feet long and 15 feet wide, with a payload compartment about the size of a pickup truck. It's also tricked out with kinds of cameras and sensors, the kind that you'd want on a spy drone. Beyond that, though, the world is left guessing what exactly the X-37B is doing up in space.

The X-37B sort of looks like a tiny space shuttle with no windows, or an orca whale with wings. The space drone program dates back to NASA's X-37 project, which got off the ground in 1999 with the help of Boeing's Phantom Works advanced prototyping unit. The program's goal of developing reusable aircraft was so tremendously vague that at first it seemed like NASA was just developing a space shuttle replacement or something. Five years and a half a billion dollars later, though, NASA passed the project along to DARPA and, eventually, the U.S. Air Force. Suddenly, this X-37 business was looking less like a NASA experiment and more like a top secret spy plane program.

This week's X-37B launch is the drone's third mission in as many years. Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, explained this in characteristically broad terms. "Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit," he said. "They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works, then bring it all back home and inspect it to see what was really going on in space."

What kinds of experiments? What type of technology? The Air Force won't say. The flyboys continue to spew the generic language that's been used to describe the X-37 program from the beginning. The space drone mission will "demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform" while "operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth."

Now that is how you title a YouTube video.

The rest of the world isn't thrilled about these classified experiments taking place 200 miles up, and the Chinese are first in line with the complaints. After the second X-37B mission touched down in California earlier this year, the Chinese press took the program to town, practically treating the mission as an act of aggression.

"Industry analysts said the spacecraft could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling enemy satellites as it circles the globe," China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, reported at the time. Former Air Force orbital analyst Brian Weeden offered a more concise summary of the Chinese interpretation of the X-37 program: "a perfect example of the U.S. developing a space weapon program while stating in public that they're doing no such thing." Meanwhile, the Chinese have redoubled their own efforts to get a comparable spacecraft in the air.

China's not entirely unjustified in thinking that the X-37B's mission objective is more aggressive than the Air Force lets on. During that last X-37B mission, amateur astronomers tracked the X-37B's orbit and found that it made multiple flyovers of potential American enemies, including North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Experts suggest that there's little the X-37B could do besides spying, since it's so small. Its payload compartment isn't really big enough for a satellite -- though it would fit a warhead handily -- and it's not equipped to do the kind of space experiments we're used to seeing take place on the shuttle or the International Space Station. 

Let's pump the brakes on the conspiracy theories, though. As Weeden pointed out six months ago, the United States already has plenty of assets to spy on the Chinese that are far less expensive than launching a whale-sized drone into space. "If the U.S. really wanted to observe Tiangong, it has enough assets to do that without using X-37B," Weeded told the Daily Mail in June, referring to China's space station program.

And even if it is spying on China — which Weeden say it's probably not, based on the path of orbit — is that such a bad thing? Dr. David Baker, editor of Spaceflight, doesn't think so. "If this is what the X-37B is doing, I think it really is no bad thing," Dr. Baker said in an interview with BBC News. "As with the Cold War, the proliferation of space surveillance systems enabled us to get arms agreements that would not have been possible without each side knowing fully what the other side was doing."

Don't forget that high altitude surveillance systems also brought us the Cuban missile crisis. But we're already way ahead of ourselves. We don't even really know for sure whether the X-37B is spying on China and the Middle East, or just growing hydroponic tomatoes up there. But it is a military space drone, so if I had to choose between the two, I wouldn't pick tomatoes..

Image via Wikimedia