Space, Physics, and Math

Secret space plane lands in California

The pilotless X-37B has returned. But, the Air Force isn’t telling anyone what this spacecraft has been up to

October 20, 2014
No windows necessary: Boeing designed the X-37B to resemble a miniature version of the classic NASA space shuttle, but this spacecraft is unmanned. [Image credit: United States Air Force]

A mysterious U.S. space plane landed at a California Air Force base Friday after spending a record-breaking 675 days in Earth’s orbit.

Other than a handful of Air Force and NASA officials, no one really knows what this unmanned spacecraft has been doing since its launch in 2012. Those working with the mission can only say that its objective is to test new technologies, but the details remain a secret.

Not surprisingly, aficionados and conspiracists alike have crafted an array of theories and speculation about what this mysterious spacecraft is really up to. While some speculate that X-37B could be some sort of space weapon sent to destroy or even capture other nations’ satellites, others believe that the plane might be spying on the Chinese space station.

Some have gone so far as to call X-37B a space warplane, but the Air Force has denied accusations that the plane is any kind of weapon. Popular Mechanics also debunked this space bomber theory, citing independent experts who say that such operations are impractical for orbital space flights. Changing the space plane’s course to fly over a specific target for attack would require a lot more fuel than the X-37B can afford, given the record-breaking duration of the mission.

Although there is no clear reason to believe that the plane is a space weapon, the spy-plane theory is perhaps a bit more substantial. Amateur space trackers noted that the plane’s fight path was suspiciously close to that of China’s spacelab, Tiangong-1, the BBC reports. But critics were quickly able to debunk this theory as well by showing that the flight paths are actually not that close at all. Another expert says there is likely no chance that X-37B is spying on the space station, because doing so would be impractical. If the U.S. really wanted to spy on Tiangong-1, they could probably come up with a more practical and stealthy way to do so.

With all secret government operations come conspiracy theories, and X-37B is no exception. Still, most experts agree that the mission has likely been doing exactly what the Air Force has been saying all along—nothing more than experimental work pertaining to space technology.

Maybe someday soon the Air Force will tell us which technologies they’re testing, and thus quiet the conspiracy theorists – for a day or two, anyway.

About the Author

Hanneke Weitering

Hanneke Weitering is a lifelong physics fanatic from Knoxville, Tennessee. While pursuing a B.S. in Physics at the University of Tennessee, she discovered her passion for science communication and dove into the world of journalism. First, she began writing stories for the Sci/Tech column at Tennessee Journalist. Afterwards she joined the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she wrote features about research being performed on the Kraken and Nautilus supercomputers.


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