Mon 13 Oct, 2014 02:58 pm
Mysterious Air Force space plane to land soon
(CNN) -- The U.S. Air Force's mysterious unmanned space plane, the X-37B, is about to come back to Earth after more than two years in orbit on a mission the military won't tell us much about.
The X-37B is expected to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Air Force said.
The base did not give an exact time for the landing, but a notice to aviators and mariners on the Federal Aviation Administration's website said airspace around the Southern California base would be closed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Tuesday.
"Team Vandenberg stands ready to implement safe landing operations for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the third time for this unique mission," Col. Keith Baits, commander of the 30th Space Wing, said in a statement.
The X-37B, which looks like a small space shuttle, lifted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on December 11, 2012. At the time, the Air Force said its mission would last about nine months.
The X-37B "is designed to demonstrate reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth," an Air Force statement said.
"Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing."
But as the spacecraft has been in orbit for more than 22 months, speculation on other uses abounds, including testing of a secret space weapon or spying activities.
The previous mission of the X-37B, which landed at Vandenberg on June 11, 2012, lasted 469 days, according to the Air Force. That mission was flown by the second of the Air Force's two X-37B orbiters. The current mission is the second for the first of the orbiters, which was refurbished after it spent 224 days in orbit following an April 2010 launch.
When the current mission launched, the Air Force said it might not be the last.
"Officials anticipate multiple missions will be required to satisfy the test program objectives, but the exact number of missions has not been determined," a statement said.
The X-37B spacecraft is 29 feet, 3 inches long and 9 feet, 6 inches high with a wingspan of 14 feet and 11 inches. It weighs about 5.5 tons. It is lifted into space by United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets.
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Here are some ideas about the X-37B's purpose:
While the United States military has plenty of surveillance satellites in orbit, some people have suggested that the X-37B has high-tech monitoring gear designed to keep an eye on certain regions of Earth. "X-37B is probably carrying prototype reconnaissance gear, for spying on the Middle East and other sensitive geopolitical regions," said ExtremeTech.com. So what's the advantage of using a space plane to spy instead of a satellite? The plane likely can move to a region of interest faster than a satellite can, Business Week reported, although others have pointed out that the fuel requirements for doing this would likely be prohibitive.
While conspiracy theorists have jumped on this notion, Popular Mechanics dumped cold water on the idea. "Changing a spacecraft's orbital plane requires a great amount of thrust — so using something like the X-37B as a bomber would mean changing its orbit to fly over targets, and that would eat up its limited fuel supply," Popular Mechanics stated, quoting University of Maryland professor Mark Lewis, a former Air Force chief scientist.
Interfering with other satellites
Another idea is that the X-37B is, in the style of James Bond, supposed to take out other satellites that are making the U.S. government nervous. But, unless the plane is somehow conducting these nefarious activities from far away while not moving around very much, some suggest this is unlikely. "It would be very easy to trace that sort of activity back to the U.S. government since governments and amateurs alike can easily track the X-37B," the Daily Beast reported.
Spying on the Chinese space station
Just before the X-37B launched, BBC and Spacefllight Magazine published reports suggesting that the orbit of the vehicle is close enough to watch what's going on with China's Tiangong-1 space station. Space analyst Jim Oberg, however, told BBC that this would be impossible. "They are in orbits which cross the equator about 90 degrees apart. They crisscross each others' paths at thousands of meters per second. Any observation from one to the other is impossible," he said.
Deploying spy satellites
Perhaps instead of interfering with satellites, the X-37B sends out its own. The space plane's 2011 mission, at the least, carried it over the same regions of the Earth repeatedly, similar to the motions of satellites, so perhaps it released probes into a similar orbit. In a New York Times report, several amateur observers watching the space plane said that it flies over the same area of the planet every four days, which is expected of a reconnaissance satellite.
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