NASA's space shuttle program may be winding down, but the US Air
Force's is just getting started. On April 22nd, the USAF launched an
unmanned mini-shuttle from Cape Canaveral on a secret mission
widely thought to involve reconnaissance.
The X-37B can now be seen gliding through the night sky
shining about as brightly as the stars of the Big Dipper.
The whereabouts of the X-37B were unknown until May
20th when amateur satellite watchers Greg Roberts of
Cape Town, South Africa, and Kevin Fetter of Brockville,
Canada, independently spotted it.
Another satellite sleuth, Ted Molczan of Toronto, Canada,
combined their observations to determine the space plane's
Most of the mission parameters for the USA-212 flight have not
been disclosed. The vehicle is capable of being on-orbit for up
to 270 days. The Air Force stated the mission time will depend
on progress of the craft's experiments during orbit.
Mission control is handled by the 3d Space Experimentation Squadron,
21st Space Wing, of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado
James Oberg speculates that the concurrent launch of Air
Force's Hypersonic Technology Vehicle HTV-2 is related to the
mission. Part of an X-37B's mission profile might involve a
simulated enemy attack, which the X-37B should be able to
detect and autonomously counteract.
HTV-2 was launched at 23:00 UTC on April 22, 2010, i.e., 52 min ahead of
X-37B, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Some speculators believe the launch of USA-212 marks the
beginning of military operations in space. In particular, William
Scott, coauthor of the techno-novel Counterspace: The Next
Hours of World War III and former Rocky Mountain Bureau
Chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine believes
that with X-37B, the Air Force might test weapon delivery from
a space plane in low Earth orbit. He mentions Rods from God as
a possible scenario.
In late May 2010, the spacecraft was located in an almost
circular (401 km times 422 km) low Earth orbit with an
inclincation of 40 degree. Its ground path repeats every four
days, which is considered indicative for a possible imaging
reconnaissance mission profile.
(25th of may 2010)