Maybe it’s the combination of mission secrecy and close resemblance to the now retired shuttle fleet but the X-37B seems to get more press than any other space craft currently flying in orbit. When I first saw the diminutive shuttle cousin back in April last year I figured it was just a unique experiment that the Department of Defence was carrying out and the rumours about it’s satellite capturing capabilities were greatly exaggerated. Indeed towards the end of the mission I investigated the idea that it was already performing such a task but based on the current trajectories of other satellites it didn’t seem like that was the case. The X-37B blasted off once again at the start of this year again shrouded in mystery as to what its actual mission was and it’s been up there ever since.
That last fact is interesting as the X-37B’s stated capabilities put it at being on-orbit for a maximum of 270 days. The deadline for its return to earth would have then been around November 30th, a date that has well past now. The United States Air Force has stated that its mission has been extended and it should be on orbit for a while to come. This is interesting because it tells us that the X-37B is a lot more capable than they’ve state it is. Whilst this could just be good old fashioned American over-engineering it does lead some credence to the theories that there’s a whole bunch of capabilities hidden within the X-37B that aren’t officially there.
What’s been really interesting however are the discussions surrounding a potential manned variant of the X-37B. As it stands the X-37B is quite a small craft, measuring a mere 10 meters long and a payload bay that’s only got a few cubic meters of storage space. Overall its very similar in size to the Soyuz craft so there’s definitely some potential for it to be converted. Rumour has it that the X-37B would be elongated significantly though, bringing its total length up to 14 metres with enough space to sit 7 astronauts. Granted it wouldn’t be as roomy as the shuttle was (nor could it deliver non-crew payloads at the same time) but it would be a quick path to restoring the USA’s manned flight capability. That would hinge on the man rating Atlas V launch system which is currently under investigation.
It’s not just space nuts that are getting all aflutter about the X-37B either. China has expressed concerns that the X-37B could be used as a orbital weapons delivery system. The secrecy surrounding the actual mission profiles that the X-37B has been flying is probably what has prompted these concerns and it being under the sole purview of the Air Force doesn’t help matters. In all honesty I doubt the X-37B would be used as a weapons platform since it’s more of a generalist/reconnaissance craft than a weapons platform. If there’s someone you want to worry about launching weapons into orbit it would be the Russians as they are the only (confirmed) nation to have launched armed craft. A dedicated weapons platform would also look nothing like the X-37B, especially if it was going to be designed for on-orbit combat (who needs wings in space?).
The next couple months will give us some more insight as to the true purpose of the X-37B. It’s quite likely that these first couple flights have just been complete shake downs of all the systems that make up the X-37B with the first flight being orbital manoeuvring verification and the current flight being an endurance test. Should it stay up there for a significant amount of time it’s more likely that it’s some form of advanced reconnaissance craft rather than something crazy like a satellite capturer or orbital weapons platform. The prospect of a manned variant is quite exciting and I’ll be waiting anxiously to see if the USA pursues that as an option.