Feeds

Secret US spaceplane spotted in orbit by hobbyists

Mysterious 'black' roboshuttle located - for now

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

Amateur astronomers believe they have located the X-37B US military unmanned spaceplane, which was launched into orbit on a classified mission a month ago.

Detail on the X-37B's wings. Credit: USAF

We now know where, but not why or what.

According to the authoritative skygazers' site Heavens-Above, the X-37B is in an orbit angled up 40 degrees from the Equator, meaning that it passes regularly over all nations between southern Europe and South Africa and corresponding portions of south Asia, Australia, Latin America and much of the USA. The little spaceplane is at a height of approximately 400km above Earth.

The X-37B is operated by the US Air Force and its mission, budget and other particulars are classified, or "black". Nonetheless, various facts about the project are known as it began life as a NASA programme.

The X-37B takes off inside a fairing atop a normal disposable launch stack, in this case an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral a month ago. It is much smaller than a space shuttle, but like the shuttle has delta-shaped wings which should offer similar "cross range" abilities during re-entry - that is the X-37B could potentially make a landing somewhere well off its orbital track.

Another difference from the Shuttle is that the little robot wingship has a deployable solar array rather than fuel cells for electric power generation, and the air force has stated that it can remain in orbit for up to 270 days. The planned duration of the current mission hasn't been revealed.

Then the X-37B also has a powerful thruster and substantial propellant tanks, which indicates that it may be intended to change orbit quickly and/or frequently - it will certainly be no surprise if at some point the sky-watchers lose track of it again.

The US air force has refused to discuss the X-37B's mission in any detail, though spokesmen have emphasised its usefulness as a testbed for developing space technologies and also for trying out rapid-response and quick turnarounds with runway-landing spacecraft. A second X-37B has already been ordered.

The secrecy has led to much speculation regarding the little craft: that it may be intended to service or deploy the planned new "fractionated" mini-sat clusters, or as a way of rushing custom spy packages into space in response to emerging crises.

No obvious mission would seem to require the X-37B's delta wings and the cross-range re-entry capability they appear to offer, however. A lifting-body or stub wing design would have been able to carry more payload and still make a runway landing - just not one well off the craft's orbital track.

This has led us here on the Reg space-war desk to wonder whether there might just be plans in some quarters for crafty one-orbit flights like the "Mission 3A/3B" planned for (but never actually executed by) the space shuttle - details here. Such missions would allow the X-37B to escape the notice not just of amateur skywatchers, but also of foreign powers with space-tracking capabilities.

It'll probably be a long time before any details emerge, however. ®

Mobile application security vulnerability report

More from The Register

next story
Bad back? Show some spine and stop popping paracetamol
Study finds common pain-killer doesn't reduce pain or shorten recovery
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
World Solar Challenge contender claims new speed record
One charge sees Sunswift travel 500kms at over 100 km/h
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
SMELL YOU LATER, LOSERS – Dumbo tells rats, dogs... humans
Junk in the trunk? That's what people have
All those new '5G standards'? Here's the science they rely on
Radio professor tells us how wireless will get faster in the real world
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Reducing security risks from open source software
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.