X-37B boosts competition between amateur astronomy and military space technology

The flight of an unmanned prototype of the American space vehicle Boeing X-37 (or X-37B) is observed not only by military experts conducting the test of the advanced space technology, but also by amateur astronomers. X-37B frequently changes the orbit. It is not clear whether this means that the vehicle is going through another test or is getting ready to return to Earth.

In recent years informal competitions between amateur astronomers and military personnel engaged in testing of advanced space technology have gained popularity. Now the attention is drawn to the flight of unmanned U.S. space vehicle, prototype of Boeing X-37 (also denoted as X-37B). Enthusiasts from all over the world are trying to track all stages of these tests. X-37B changes its orbit in an unpredictable way from time to time. From time to time, the astronomers lose the sight of it, then find it again and alert their colleagues.

The launch of X-37B was made on April 22, 2010 with the launch vehicle Atlas V from Cape Canaveral (Florida). According to unconfirmed reports, the flight cost American taxpayers nearly $100 million. The spaceship is still in Earth orbit, but during the period between July 29 and August 14 of this year, it changed its orbit and made the amateurs recalculate its parameters. Once again X-37B changed its location less than a week ago. According to a posting on the site Spaceweather.com, it was "lost" on the nights of October 7 and October 9.

The space vehicle was discovered on October 12 by the observers from South Africa. Apparently, its orbit has diverged by 54 kilometers.

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Whether this maneuver means that the vehicle is going through another test, or it is prepared to return to Earth, is unknown. The potential of solar panels made of gallium arsenide has not yet been exhausted and should allow the unit to remain in space up to at least 270 days, whereas it has been fewer than 180 days since its launch.

X-37B is controlled remotely and can land automatically. After completing its mission the spaceship would have to land either at Vandenberg Air Force Base, or Edwards Air Force Base - both located in California.

There is not much information available about this secret project of the Air Force. NASA began working at it in 1999, and the first samples of space vehicles were transferred to the Pentagon in 2004 (thus the project has passed into the hands of the military). The current flight of X-37B is claimed to be the first test of the vehicle by specialists of the Air Force.

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The Air Force bulletin says that the orbital tests of vehicle X-37B aim at obtaining a reliable reusable unmanned platform that will serve as the principal carrier for the U.S. Air Force in space. The objectives of the test program include space experiments, risk reduction and changing concepts of work in space, as well as technology development of a space shuttle.

Of course, amid all this secrecy and the transfer of the project from the jurisdiction of the civilian space agency to the Air Force inevitably caused speculation that the Americans are busy creating new types of space weapons that sooner or later would provoke a new arms race.

The opinion of the former Air Force officer Brian Wheeden, who currently serves as a technical advisor of the Secure World Foundation, which examined the potential of X-37B and virtually ruled out the possibility of using the space plane as a weapon, is given as a rebuttal. According to Wheeden, it is much more likely that such orbital platforms will be used for espionage purposes (that is, to collect intelligence from space).

Those wishing to delve into the history of the issue and find out the possibility of using X-37B are invited to read a detailed article on this topic written by Michael Klesius.

Maxim Borisov

Read the original in Russian

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov