Amateur astronomers have glimpsed beneath a cloak of secrecy
shrouding the military’s miniature robotic space shuttle, which was launched
last month on a trial run.
The Air Force says its Orbital Space Vehicle, also known as
the X-37B, is intended to test technologies for future space systems as well as
demonstrate efficient turn-around processes to prepare the ships for flight.
Officials have been mum on how X-37B has been faring since
it blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 22. But thanks to
the efforts of amateur photographers, we at least know where it is, which
provides clues about what it’s doing.
The first spotting of X-37B in orbit is credited to
independent sightings from Greg
Roberts of Cape Town, South Africa, and Kevin Fetter of Brockville, Canada,
reports Tony Phillips with Spaceweather.com. Long-time satellite-watcher Ted
Molczan of Toronto used the sightings to derive the satellite’s orbit, which
allowed Fetter to find it again May 21 as it passed by the star Sadalsuud in
the constellation Aquarius.
The X-37B is now about as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper, says Phillips.
It is passing over the ground track once every four days, an orbit that is typical for
U.S. spy satellites, according to Molczan.
The informal team of satellite watchers has discovered that X-37B is circling about 255
miles above the planet — roughly where NASA’s space shuttles fly — in an orbit inclined about 40 degrees north and south of the equator. Forty degrees north latitude is about where Philadelphia is located. The X-37B, which is 29 feet long with a 14-foot wingspan, makes one orbit about every 90 minutes.
Like NASA’s shuttles, the mini-spaceplane has cargo bay, which could be used to expose
experiments and sensors to the space environment and/or launch and retrieve small satellites. It uses solar energy to produce electricity, rather than chemicals like the space shuttles, and can stay in orbit for up to nine months.
No word from the military on when X-37B will return from its debut flight.
Image credit: Gary O., via SpaceWeather.com