On April 22 the Air Force launched the X-37B, an unmanned miniature space shuttle look-alike that was cloaked in secrecy and described in official gobbledygook that still defies the best decryption efforts of NSA. Here’s a sample: Gary E. Payton, under secretary of the Air Force for space programs [said], “The program supports technology risk reduction, experimentation and operational concept development.”
Nothing about this mission makes sense. What aroused my curiosity was an article in the NY Times that Harvard astronomer Jonathan Mc Dowell had reported the upper stage was sent into an unknown orbit around the sun. Now the upper stage of any launch vehicle shoves the main payload into its final orbit and stays there having expended its fuel, in this case 255 miles high.
Why did the upper stage continue into a sun orbit after positioning the X-37B in low earth orbit? The second oddity is the launch vehicle is an Atlas V with a Centaur upper stage. The version used (501) is designed and optimized for launching geosynchronous satellites to an altitude of about 22,000 miles high, not low earth orbit. The similar 502 version can lift 22,700 pounds into low earth orbit, more than double the 11,000 pounds of the space plane. Normally a smaller, less expensive launch vehicle would be used in such circumstances.
With half of the Atlas V’s capacity unused, one wonders what else went into orbit. Likely it was some sort of covert satellite, either to inspect what other nations might have put up there, but our own as well. Geosynchronous satellites are all in a very narrow band in both altitude and inclination. They are very hard to detect from earth if they are designed with stealth characteristics. But positioning an imaging satellite in an orbit slightly higher, it can detect their silhouettes against the bright earth. Also, we can inspect our own satellites to make sure nothing potentially destructive has been placed on or near them.
Our assets in space, both civilian and military, are essential. Aircraft and shipping are dependent on GPS. Our worldwide communications systems are heavily reliant on satellites and our intelligence collection efforts rely on them. While we have treaties on weaponizing space, satellites remain vulnerable, as we found out when the Chinese used lasers against one of our satellites in an apparent effort to blind it.
My best guess is the X-37B is simply a cover for another satellite (covert) launched with it.