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A plane has been in space for 650 days, and no one knows why

The X-37B is a kind of robotic space plane, built by the US. It’s been in Earth’s orbit for more than 500 days. And its real purpose is a complete mystery. Intrigued?

Here’s what we do know about X-37B

Constructed in California, the Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Space Vehicle was built for the US Air Force as a test vehicle; not intended to reach production. It is a quarter the size of the Endeavour Space Shuttle. It is equipped with heat-shield protection for re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.

Currently the X-37B is orbiting at 28,044km/h, at a distance of around 350km in the sky. It can land, but no one will say when that will be.

“I’ll give you my standard line on X-37,” General William Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command told Space.com in May. “X-37 is doing great. I can’t tell you what it’s doing, but it’s doing great.”

It’s been in the sky before, after being launched on April 22, 2010, on a rocket. It then landed on December 3, 2010 – blowing a tire and suffering minor damage to its underbelly.

It took off again from Cape Canaveral on December 11, 2012 – now reaching 500 days in orbit.

The Air Force also launched a second model of X-37B on March 5, 2011. Described by the U.S. military as an “effort to test new space technologies”, it landed safely at Vandenberg Air Force Base on June 16, 2012, after 469 days in space. This third mission has now smashed this previous record.

X-37B’s actual functions are still heavily classified.

As you’d imagine, conspiracy theorists are having a field day, and here’s why:

Powered by a solar panel that unfurls once in orbit, X-37B can open with small, shuttle-like payload bay in its middle – think of a clamshell opening from underneath. There’s room for more than just a solar panel too. Exactly what items it carries, and why they need to be in space so long, has proved elusive for analysts, the space community, and the media.

To add further intrigue, the plane is classified as a secret project, yet maker Boeing has released pictures and more than two pages of details on the X-37B. That’s not how secrets are usually dealt with. By contrast, the secret Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was not declassified until decades after it had been flown in the Vietnam War.

The X-37 started life way back in 1999 when NASA asked Boeing’s Phantom Works division to develop an orbital test vehicle. This was a civilian project, and the X-37 was originally spec’d as an unmanned, robotic spacecraft that would rendezvous with satellites to refuel, repair them, or crash them back to Earth once their lifecycle was complete. But in 2004 the project was transferred to DARPA and since then, it has been highly classified.

The amateur skywatching community that documents satellites say it’s orbiting between 43.5 degrees north latitude to 43.5 degrees south latitude. That’s a band around the middle of Earth that takes in much of the US, Middle East, and Asia, but is away from Russia, and Europe. Spotters suggest that at the altitude of 350km, it is ideal altitude for spying, but too low to refuel or fix other satellites.

It’s versatile, and has worked well enough that Boeing is contracted to create the next model, the X-37C. It will be at least 65 per cent larger and have the ability to carry up to six astronauts, while operating unmanned.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility April 13, 2010 (via US Air Force).

What we can guess

The two most popular theories suggest the vehicle is simply running an extended duration test – a marathon in space. The other theory is that the two previous missions prove the testing phase is complete, and it is now on an extended operation running a mission, or multiple missions.

The long endurance run theory has credit; proving that new, experimental critical components can work reliably for a long-duration in space, close to Earth.

The running-mission has credit too – with two previous missions complete, X-37B can now operate at length. And perhaps it is – observing, spying, experimenting, hosting space-weapons, or collecting data for the NSA. We just don’t know.

Both theories are plausible.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told Space.com, “While the classified nature of the X-37B has raised some concerns about its intended operational purposes, technically, the program must be commended for doing something new… and successfully.”

She speculated X-37’s payload would include new sensors and satellite hardware to be tested.

What it isn’t

Plenty of conspiracy theorist have posed the question of X-37B carrying a nuclear payload, to guarantee a ‘first strike’ opportunity (or to have a counter-option in place).

If you have any hope for humanity, that can’t be right. The US is a signatory to The Space Treaty, which is no joke. Space-based weapons of mass destruction are banned.

(One curious example of a space-based weapon that isn’t banned is a Kinetic strike, where objects whizzing around the Earth at great speed are intentionally sent to the ground, causing a meteorite-like impact and widespread damage. This type of attack is also known as ‘Rods from God’.)

An artist's conception of the X-37 Advanced Technology Demonstrator as it glides to a landing on earth.

An artist’s conception of the X-37 Advanced Technology Demonstrator as it glides to a landing on earth. (Via NASA)

General characteristics

Crew: None
Length: 8.9m
Wingspan: 4.5m
Height: 2.9m
Loaded weight: 4,990kg
Powerplant: 1 × Aerojet AR2-3 rocket engine (hydrazine)
Power: Gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries

Update: We have touchdown! After 674 days in space, X-37B landed. We have all the images and information for you here.

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About the author

Tristan has a passion for tech, digital life, sport, and being told he looks better in person.

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Comment (29)

    brambleberry

    Saturday 3 May 2014

    Crowbars from God would be a better term.

    Reply

    Atwas911

    Wednesday 7 May 2014

    And how much do you want to bet its got nukes on board?

    Reply

    TerraHertz

    Friday 16 May 2014

    Assuming it is still functional. Is there any evidence it didn’t fail, and isn’t now just a piece of orbiting dead junk?

    Reply

      Tristan Rayner

      Saturday 17 May 2014

      Now that’s thinking outside the box. We’ll find out soon enough!

      Reply

    DLH

    Saturday 17 May 2014

    Are the conspiracy loons aware that there are already satellites in orbit, including spy satellites?

    Reply

    Sam

    Monday 19 May 2014

    FYI, the Outer Space Treat only disallows certain weapons. In-orbit kinetic kill weapons are still allowed, and extremely viable.

    Reply

      Tristan Rayner

      Monday 19 May 2014

      Absolutely, and the article makes this point. Thanks! And hello to Reddit – thanks for the hugs.

      Reply

    Gus

    Monday 19 May 2014

    “The US is a signatory to The Space Treaty, which is no joke.”

    So the treaties which the US ignores are jokes? Is there any way to tell, until the US government breaks one? Sounds tautological to me.

    Reply

    Lefty

    Tuesday 20 May 2014

    I’m old enough to remember the good old days – when we were suspicious of the Russians and trusted our own government. I’m not sure which one I trust less now.

    Reply

    James Carmody

    Sunday 1 June 2014

    here come the conspiracy theories. the telephone was a secret until it was publically announced.

    Reply

    Mick johnson

    Tuesday 3 June 2014

    It’s my opinion this is a test for a future mars project in years to come..surely this is a logical reason without all the theory and suspicious reasons.

    Mars or bust?

    Guess we will find out in years to come..

    Reply

    GARRY

    Wednesday 4 June 2014

    Is why MH370 went missing ????

    Reply

    Grey Nomad

    Thursday 5 June 2014

    Awesome. The dream of “Space” is still there for the next generation of kids

    Reply

    Jim

    Friday 6 June 2014

    If this is privately funded I have no problem with it, but if it is my tax dollars and no-one from our government can tell us what it’s all about I’m not a happy camper!

    Reply

    Peter

    Sunday 15 June 2014

    I’ve never heard it called a “rod from God”. That’s evocative, but the better terms I’ve seen come from science fiction. It’s been described as a Thor Strike or a KEW (kinetic energy weapon). Still, whatever you call them, a crowbar from space is gonna leave a hell of a hole…and no lingering radiation to worry about. Accuracy might be an issue though without terminal guidance. The jet stream could play havoc with an unguided projectile no matter how fast it’s going.

    Reply

      Neil

      Wednesday 2 July 2014

      The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory developed the manoeuvrable war head concept. The concept is well illustrated by the following short video:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-V6MZlyCqE

      At 01:38 the RV bus manoeuvres itself into a predetermined window in space before releasing the RV containing a 200kT warhead. At 01:56, spin gas generators fire to rotate or spin the RV, to keep it stabilized before it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

      The time line is shortened by editing because an ICBM launched from the USA to Russia or China, would take from 20 minutes to 30 minutes to reach its target, depending on the missile’s original silo location, and the location of the target.

      The time of T+62 or 62 seconds since it was launched, where it reaches an altitude of 100,000 feet or 30.5km is reasonably accurate because the Minuteman III has to get out of Dodge really fast; in case a Russian or Chinese nuke is coming in attempting to take it out with an air burst nuclear detonation whilst the Minuteman III’s still in its atmospheric ascent profile or boost phase. If there was a real nuclear war, the launch complex wouldn’t launch just one missile, depending on the retaliatory strike scenario, some or all of the missiles would be launched simultaneously, to attack different targets. That way if an incoming Russian or Chinese nuke has a ground penetrating war head to destroy the remaining missiles still in their silos, there are enough missiles in flight to assure a credible counter strike. If some of the missiles still in their silos survive, and the launch crew and their equipment is still able, they can still launch the remaining missiles, if ordered, for a second counter strike.

      Of course if all the missiles still in their silos are destroyed, the mission may be transferred to the US Navy SSBNs, US Navy attack sub launched, or surface ship launched, or the B1 or B2 launched stand-off nuclear cruise missiles. Even US Navy F18s and USAF F16s can each carry two 1Mt nuclear glide bombs.

      If a nuclear war broke out, as the ICBMs are climbing into space, the SAC bomber forces are already being launched as rapidly as possible before any incoming Russian or Chinese nuclear warheads, jet fighters or bombers take out any USAF bombers still on the ground.

      A KE (Kinetic Energy) weapon may use similar technology as the manoeuvrable war head, to manoeuvre the KE warhead to a predetermined window in space to avoid jet streams, and the spin stabilization would make sure it wasn’t blown off target by strong regular winds during its terminal phase, as it descends to its target.

      Reply

    Flying Tiger Comics

    Wednesday 18 June 2014

    It’s had time to fly to Mars and back, even if you believe its “official” propulsion story. Bearing in mind the utter pack of lies promulgated about the B2 propulsion system.

    Reply

    Paulocaesar

    Saturday 28 June 2014

    For me the most concerning issue is why we seem to think it’s okay to display our national security secrets to the world, especially to competitors whose sole aim will no doubt be to hack whatever information databases they can, searching for means to match the technology in order to apply it to uses we never conceived.
    Irresponsible journalism, with all due respects!

    Reply

      Tristan Rayner

      Sunday 29 June 2014

      This is an Australian website :)

      Reply

    Ian Lawson

    Wednesday 2 July 2014

    The Us breaks any treaty it wants. It used to have planes with bombs always in the air over UK in 1955 plus so why not now. Never trust America.

    Reply

    Bush

    Sunday 13 July 2014

    How about a vehicle to transport Kinetic Bombardment Rods? Although there’s been no prove of existence, the concept of dropping long metal rods from space has been around since the 50s. In 2003, the USAF described the system (also called Project Thor) to work like this. 20 ft long metallic (Tungsten to be PC) rods would be put into orbit and later “deorbited” over a target. These rods could be hurling towards a country near you at the speed of Mach 10 (7700mph or 3430 m/sec). The Kinetic Energy created on impact is equivalent to 11.5 tons of TNT which can cause very large damage and it can also eliminate an underground bunker. Launch is hard to detectable and shooting down a Mach 10 rod is arguably impossible. This system proves itself deadly. Since long metallic rods aren’t prohibited by neither the Outer Space Treaty nor the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, this Project Thor could be over your head and the X-37B could be transporting the payload itself…or it’s just a spy plane!

    Reply

    Anthony

    Tuesday 22 July 2014

    As has been said; only some weapons are banned. It could well carry other weapons intended to take out communications or spy satellites, in other words a kind of space fighter. KEWs are unlikely as they are basically a simple weapon which could be launched under cover of a normal satellite package.

    Reply

    Jon reinertsen

    Friday 8 August 2014

    Hey Guys just watch “Iron Sky”. It will explain all.

    Reply

    Bill H

    Thursday 14 August 2014

    Given that there is currently a school of thought that says an “End of Life” meteor is bound for Earth could the X37 be a “Meteor Protection” weapon?

    Reply

    Robert

    Monday 18 August 2014

    Oh my god our own governments are out to get us and the world, lets all spend countless hours freaking out

    Reply

    dan

    Friday 19 September 2014

    I wonder if there is humans in outer space that have never stepped foot on earth

    Reply

    KHAN85

    Tuesday 7 October 2014

    X-37B has a railgun aboard, Chelyabinsk “meteorite” was a satellite shut down by Boeing X-37B railgun.

    Reply

    Brian

    Tuesday 11 August 2015

    Instead of all your consperacy therories, how about the testing of vehicles for the missions coming up to Mars? Computer and life support systems will need to to be tested to make the journey. We do this all the time with unmanned machines to test our products for durability, why not space machines?

    Reply

    Forearmed

    Saturday 30 April 2016

    Our government never spends that kind of money unless it is something nafearous, and to leave it up that long says that it is carrying a weapon of some sort.
    Our government already has flying anti gravity machines, (saucers) and anyone who does not know that now must have their heads up where it doesn’t belong. We have all the spy satalites we need, so I do not think it has to do with spying.

    The more likely case is that it has a HAARP type Scalar Weaponry aboard, to be used when they want to create natural disasters that seem, well, natural. Like that earthquake which devastated Japan with a Tsunami. Japan’s rulers knew that something was up and were warned off what it was attempting to do. They didn’t stoop and boom they were essentially attack.

    You people out there in La La Land need to understand that our corrupt government has weapons that would make your head spin. Goodle up what Scalar Weaponry and HAARP can do.

    Reply