The Air Force’s X-37B space plane has just returned from a two year mission and speculation about what that mission was is running wild.
The aircraft — a mini version of the Space Shuttle at 29 feet long and 15 foot wingspan — officially says the craft carried out experiments in advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, and aircraft electronic systems, which is about as general as you can get.
But specifics have been lacking which has set off an internet storm that includes conspiracy theories about top secret surveillance programs, developing bombing capabilities, and even anti-satellite warfare. That last is an area the US lags behind China and Russia as it is thought that both countries have carried out experiments in crippling communications and surveillance satellites from the ground.
Weeden, now a technical advisor for the Secure World Foundation, said speculation seemed to run rampant specifically because so little has been disclosed.
“Because it is a secret military space plane, there is tons and tons of speculation about what it’s doing in orbit,” Weeden said.
Popular online theories included that “it’s testing the ability to drop bombs in orbit or covertly going up and disabling satellites,” he said.
Weeden said looking at past instances of American spacecraft, he believes the spacecraft is more likely involved in something less shocking.
“What I think is more practical is that it’s setting up technology for surveillance,” said Weeden, who pointed out the military has relied heavily on satellite surveillance for decades.
Weeden also said the fact that the spacecraft can be reused and can return unmanned can allow faster turnaround on experiments.
Weeden said the ship might provide a kind of fast-track space for the military to try out new equipment in orbit before it is sent via satellite. If new equipment breaks on a satellite in orbit, it can be difficult to fix. However, if it breaks in on a returnable spacecraft, engineers can make changes before it returns to orbit.
Of course, the question that would be uppermost in everyone’s mind is just who the government wants to surveil. Since the NSA and affiliated agencies don’t appear to be slacking off in their mania for our communications, you have to believe they are inventing more and better ways to keep track of us.
But whatever the X-37B was up to out there, it’s still a cool piece of technology.