The former top civilian of the United States Air Force recently provided insight into the mission of an experimental space plane that has perplexed space geeks, enthusiasts, experts, and even some officials due to its covert use.
Heather Wilson, the service’s 24th secretary, brought up the X-37B spacecraft during a discussion about space situational awareness and deterrence at the Aspen Security Forum last week.
“It looks like a small version of the [NASA space] shuttle, but it’s unmanned,” said Wilson.
Wilson left her position in May to become president of the University of Texas at El Paso.
Wilson termed the X-37B as “fascinating” since it “can do an orbit that looks like an egg and, when it’s close to the Earth, it’s close enough to the atmosphere to turn where it is.”
“Which means our adversaries don’t know — and that happens on the far side of the Earth from our adversaries — where it’s going to come up next. And we know that that drives them nuts. And I’m really glad about that,” she added.
The X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), was discovered earlier this month when an astronomer in the Netherlands photographed the robotic space plane in low Earth orbit.
According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Wilson’s comments on its movement may shed light on “a previously secret orbit-related capability.”
“It is true that the X-37B flies lower than just about every other active satellite and low enough that atmospheric drag is definitely significant,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning and technical adviser for national and international space security for the Secure World Foundation, in an email.
“So [Wilson’s] statement about using that increased drag, plus its unusual shape, to alter its orbit is plausible.”
McDowell went on to add, “the aircraft’s movement likely throws an adversary off, even if just for a short time”.
“The dip into the atmosphere causes a change in the timing of when it next comes overhead. So [trackers’] predictions are off, and [they] have to search for it all over again,” he said.
“The alteration would only be in the timing of when the X-37B came overhead a particular spot — it would either arrive a bit sooner or a bit later,” said Weeden arguing that this may become predictable.
“But sometimes, that’s good enough to throw space sleuths, especially adversaries already looking for the craft, off track,” said McDowell.
“Even a timing change makes more work for [adversaries] than just being able to use the existing orbital prediction,” explained McDowell.
But how long can the X-37B continue to avoid detection in this manner? According to Weeden, many in the global commercial space industry are racing to advance their radars and telescopes, not just Russia and China. The disclosure of how the X-37B may operate raises concerns among partners and allies.
“I think it creates more misconceptions about what the mission of the X-37B is and could lead to more international concerns that it’s some type of weapons platform,” Weeden said. “I think that works against U.S. interests because it will create more diplomatic problems for the U.S. when it tries to point out Russian and Chinese ‘unusual behavior in space’ and push for discussions on space norms of behavior.”
In short, “it gives Russia and China one more talking point about how the U.S. is the one ‘weaponizing’ space, even if that’s not true,” he opined.
On September 7, 2017, the X-37B had taken off for its 5th mission.
Its payloads and most of its activities are classified. At that time, the US Air Force had said the mission would carry “the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-II) payload to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long-duration space environment.”
According to the service, the Orbital Test Vehicle performs “risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies,” as well as “long-duration space technology experimentation and testing.”
The OTV, which is managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (ARCO), can re-enter the atmosphere autonomously and eventually land horizontally on a flight line.
On March 25, 2017, the program touched a milestone with the X-37B spending 675 days in orbit.
While the ARCO is responsible for the X-37B’s experimental operations, the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado helps carry out its mission control.
Wilson’s publicized remarks make the discussions surrounding X-37 more interesting, McDowell said. “But … the payloads are probably the main secret,” he said.