On December 11, 2012 the aircraft, a Boeing X-37B, was launched from Cape Canaveral to start its third test flight.
The first orbital test vehicle (OTV-1) was first launched in April 2010 and returned to Earth that December. It was the United States' first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own. The space shuttle had been the only spacecraft capable of landing on a runway.
A second, OTV-2, set a record for a reusable spacecraft in June of this year when it completed a 469-day mission. In comparison, the longest space shuttle mission lasted 17 days.
The Orbital Test Vehicle (X-37B) was birthed by NASA in 1999, the project shifted to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004, and then to the U.S. Air Force in 2006. It’s an unmanned robotic reusable vertical take-off, horizontal landing spaceplane. The X-37B can re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land autonomously with no pilot. The robot can even adjust its course in space instead of following the same predictable orbit once it's aloft. The craft has no crew cabin, no life support systems, and neither the Air Force nor NASA has indicated a desire to upgrade it for human spaceflight. The spacecraft's orbital endurance is enabled by its solar array, which generates power after deploying from its payload bay making it remain in orbit up to 270 days. The X-37B is about 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. Two X-37B vehicles could fit inside the payload bay of a space shuttle.
The project's total cost is unknown because the budget has been classified since the X-37B project was transferred to DARPA. The specific identity of the payload has not been revealed… The Air Force stated only that the spacecraft would "demonstrate various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components, and associated technology to be transported into space and back."
Mission to guess
The official U.S. Air Force fact sheet says the vehicle is being used as an "experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force."
There are different versions of what the spacecraft is supposed to do while circling the planet at declared orbits varying from 200 to 750 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The initial idea has been that the spacecraft is a new type of a surveillance satellite that can change orbits to fly above the desired territory on Earth. This version is substantiated by the fact that the craft flew over Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan and changed orbits not once.
It's almost certainly a spy plane, or, at least, a testbed for space surveillance gear and a launch platform for miniature spy satellites. The vehicle’s payload is enough to accommodate some spy equipment like cameras and sensors. The vehicle has no docking hatch, so it cannot be another means of small-size deliveries to the ISS or any other orbital station.
It was also called a testing model for a future “space bomber” that will be able to destroy targets from the orbit. Some question whether the X-37B itself might be a delivery system for a nuclear bomb — whether the spaceship is intended to re-enter Earth's atmosphere on autopilot and dive-bomb an enemy target. But other analysts disagree, saying the payload is too small and the specifications don’t meet the purpose.
Some surmise the X-37B is a satellite-tracker or a satellite-killer. Or both.
James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the length of the mission indicates that the OTV has a more covert mission as well. There wouldn’t be a need to stay in orbit for months otherwise, Lewis says. “It’s not like it’s just a bus designed to take things into space and bring them back.” This experiment shows that the US can use space “as a platform for sensors that can collect on things in a way other countries really can’t stop,” he adds. In the case of the X-37B this likely includes collecting “electronic signals of all kinds,” whether it’s microwave communications or the ability to measure data from a distance. “In the case of, say, the recent North Korean missile launch this could include messages going back and forth between the ground control and the missiles, as well as measuring the heat signature and the flight path of the launch” (1).
Global Network chair Dave Webb (who also serves as the chair of UK’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) believes the spacecraft is part of the Pentagon's effort to develop the capability to strike anywhere in the world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour. He says, “We believe that the X-37B space plane is part of the Pentagon's effort to develop the capability to strike anywhere in the world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour – known as Prompt Global Strike. Thus as the U.S. moves forward with these kinds of global strike systems from and through space it will be likely that Russia and China will be forced to respond by refusing to reduce their nuclear weapons and by developing space technologies of their own to counter the U.S. program.” The Global Network maintains that the development of these new space planes is one reason that the Obama administration and the Pentagon are eager to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles in Russia and China in the years to come. As key elements in the growing U.S. first-strike program (along with so-called ‘missile defense’ systems), they become even more effective if the U.S. can get its potential rivals to reduce their nuclear retaliatory capability giving the Pentagon an even greater chance of pulling off a successful decapitating first-strike attack (2).
Its spacecraft role may be expanded in the future. In its current state, the vehicle could fly cargo missions to docking to the orbiting outpost's common berthing port, Boeing officials have said (3).
Let me add something that is a strictly personal opinion based on some modest military experience. The altitudes used for military and exploration purposes today range from 0 to 20 km and from 140 km up. There is a void to be filled in between that is considered as a potential theater of warfare. The X-37 is clearly a means to fill the void from “above” going down, while the Boeing X-51 (also known as X-51 Wave Rider) does it from “down” or from lower level going up. X-51 is an unmanned scramjet demonstration aircraft for hypersonic (Mach 6, approximately 4,000 miles per hour (6,400 km/h) at altitude) flight testing. In flight demonstrations, the X-51 is carried by a B-52 to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15.2 kilometers) and then released over the ocean. The program is managed by US Air Force. The craft successfully completed its first powered flight in May 2010 and also achieved the longest duration flight at speeds over Mach 5.
Since the middle of the XX century outer space has been used as an operating location for military spacecraft such as imaging and communications satellites, and some ballistic missiles pass through outer space during their flight. As yet, however, weapons have not been stationed in space. Nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction are banned from space under the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which is usually called the Outer Space Treaty. But the Treaty does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons in orbit. The present Washington's actions and plans have stirred concerns about non-nuclear arms in space.
Through resolutions and discussions within the United Nations, a general agreement has developed that an arms race in outer space should be prevented. However, due to the structure of the international legal regime and to the objection of a small number of states, like the USA, for instance, a treaty has not yet been negotiated to comprehensively prevent the deployment of space-based weapons. The United States argues that an arms race in outer space does not yet exist, and it is therefore unnecessary to take action on the issue.
On 12 February 2008, Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, addressed the Conference and presented the Russia’s draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) backed by China. It was the first draft treaty on this issue formally introduced to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), though it was based on elements proposed in a working paper to the CD in June 2002 by Russia, China, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Syria. Minister Lavrov explained the draft treaty is designed “to eliminate existing lacunas in international space law, create conditions for further exploration and use of space, preserve costly space property, and strengthen general security and arms control.” Before that China and Russia had presented several "working papers" on preventing an arms race in outer space and the draft treaty refined elements from previous joint documents.
Back then U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a speech to the disarmament group, expressed dismay over the long-standing impasse at the talks meant to stop the spread of dangerous weapons. Still the Russia-China initiative never came to fruition opposed by the United Sates. Donald Mahley, then acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary for threat reduction, export controls and negotiations, said, “"Additional binding arms control agreements are simply not a viable tool for enhancing the long-term space security interests of the United States or its allies."
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The United States continues to invest in programs that could provide anti-satellite and space-based weapons capabilities. In July 2010, the Obama administration released the new US National Space Policy. It states, “The United States remains committed to the use of space systems in support of its national and homeland security. The United States will invest in space situational awareness capabilities and launch vehicle technologies; develop the means to assure mission essential functions enabled by space; enhance our ability to identify and characterize threats; and deter, defend, and if necessary, defeat efforts to interfere with or attack U.S. or allied space systems” (4).
The new policy also notes that the US will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are “equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the US and its allies.” According to US, the Russian-Chinese joint draft treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT) would not meet these criteria according to the US, as it is “fundamentally flawed” and would not provide any grounds for commencing negotiations. Somehow the United States has failed to come with any initiative of its own so far, giving priority to continuing space militarization.
Putting military potential in space will destroy strategic balance and stability, undermine international and national security, jeopardize the arms control regime and lead to an arms race. The way to prevent it is a multilateral treaty not launching military spacecraft with the missions shrouded in secrecy.