It turns out that some of the enlightened speculation about the US Army's latest X-37B spaceplane mission was largely correct.
When the semi-secret winged spacecraft lifted off on December 28, it flew into orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which is much larger than the Atlas V and Falcon 9 rockets used to launch the X-37B on its previous missions.
This immediately sparked speculation that the X-37B would reach higher altitudes than its previous flights, which remained in low Earth orbit at altitudes of a few hundred miles. The discovery by Tommy Simola, a satellite tracker who lives near Helsinki, Finland, seems to confirm these suspicions.
On Friday, Simola mentioned on social media and beyond See Sat-L, a long-standing online forum for satellite tracking enthusiasts, reported that it had discovered an unidentified object using a sky monitoring camera. The camera is designed to continuously monitor a portion of the sky to detect objects moving in space. Special software helps identify known and unknown objects.
“Exciting news!” Simula posted on social media. “The satellite camera saw the Orbital Test Vehicle 7 (OTV-7), which was launched into secret orbit last December! Here are the pictures from the last two nights!”
Orbital Test Vehicle 7 (OTV-7), which blasted into secret orbit last December, was seen by my satellite camera!
Here are the pictures from the last two nights! pic.twitter.com/3twOVdovVc
– Tompa 🇺🇦 (@tomppa77) February 9, 2024
Mike McCants, one of the world's most experienced satellite observers and co-director of the SeeSat-L Forum, agreed with Simula's conclusion that he had found the X-37B spaceplane.
“Congratulations to Tommy Simola on locating the secret X-37B spaceplane,” posted Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and widely respected expert on spaceflight activity.
Higher than ever
Amateur observations of the spaceplane indicate that it flies in a highly elliptical orbit between 201 and 24,133 miles (323 and 38,838 kilometers) in altitude. The orbit is inclined at 59.1 degrees from the equator.
That's not far off from the expectations of the hobby tracking community ahead of the launch in December. At the time, enthusiasts used information about the Falcon Heavy's launch path and the drop zones of the rocket's primary booster and upper stage to estimate the orbit it would reach with the X-37B spaceplane.
The Space Force did not release any information about the X-37B's orbit. While it took amateurs about six weeks to find X-37B on this mission, it took less time for amateur trackers to locate it when it orbited at low altitudes on its previous missions. Despite the secrecy, it is difficult to imagine that the US military's adversaries in China and Russia did not already know where the space plane was flying.
Military officials typically do not reveal details about the X-37B's missions while in space, providing updates only before each launch and then after each landing.
This is the seventh flight of the X-3B spaceplane since it was first launched in 2010. In a statement before the launch in December, the Space Force said this flight of the X-37B focuses on a “broad range of tests and experiments.” Objectives.” Military officials said that flying into “new orbital systems” was among the test objectives.
The Army has two Boeing-made X-37B spaceplanes, or orbital test vehicles, in its inventory. It is reusable and designed to launch inside the payload interface of a conventional rocket, spend several years in space using solar power, and then return to Earth to land on a three-mile runway, either at the Vandenberg Space Force. base in California or at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It looks like a miniature version of NASA's retired orbiting shuttle spacecraft, with wings, deployable landing gear, and black thermal protection tiles to protect its belly from the scorching heat of reentry. It is 29 feet (about 9 meters) long, nearly a quarter of the length of NASA's space shuttle, and does not carry astronauts.
The X-37B has a cargo compartment inside the fuselage for payloads, with doors that open after launch and close before landing. There is also a service module mounted at the back of the spaceplane to accommodate additional experiments, payloads and small satellites that can be deployed into orbit to perform their own missions.
All the Space Force has said about the payloads aboard the current X-37B flight is that its experimentation package includes investigations of new “space domain awareness technologies.” NASA is conducting an experiment on the X-37B to measure how plant seeds respond to sustained exposure to space radiation. The spaceplane's orbit on this flight passes through the Van Allen radiation belts.
The secrecy surrounding the X-37B has sparked much speculation about its purpose, some of which centers on ideas that the spaceplane is part of a secret weapons platform in orbit. Analysts say it is more likely that the X-37B is a testbed for new space technologies. The unusual elliptical orbit for this mission is similar to the orbit used for some Space Force satellites designed to detect and warn of ballistic missile launches.
McDowell said this could mean the X-37B is testing an infrared sensor for future early warning satellites, but then warned that this would be “just wild speculation.”
Speculation is all about the X-37B. But it seems we no longer need to speculate where the X-37B is flying.
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