The United States may be retiring the last of its space shuttles in the coming months, but that does not mean that made-in-the-USA winged craft will be absent from the skies. You may not have known it, but there is already such a thing orbiting the earth.
To the untrained eye it looks a lot like the Atlantis or the Discovery, but its name isn't quite so evocative: this particular craft is called the X-37B. Unlike its forebears, its purpose is secretive and militaristic — so much so that it may be the first time America has put anything in space with an orbit that is officially secret.
There are other differences between it and the shuttles we know so well. The former is far smaller, for example, with a wingspan of just 14 feet and a length of 29 feet (shuttles are 122 feet long with 78-foot wingspans).
The new space explorer, moreover, is robotic with no humans on board.
No one is calling it a drone. But the connotations of clandestine warfare might not be entirely inappropriate.
While every shuttle launch is attended by banks of spectators at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the launch, also from Canaveral, of this new craft a month ago was shrouded in a cloak of secrecy. Although the project began as part of Nasa, it was taken over by the Pentagon four years ago.
Some of that cloak is now being punctured, however, thanks to amateur sky-gazers in countries as far apart as Canada and South Africa. They think they have seen the craft, also known as Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1), in recent days. Seemingly, it is flying 255 miles up and circles the planet once every 90 minutes on a course that takes it south of New York City and, more importantly, directly over war zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
One of the amateur sky-watchers is Kevin Fetter, a contributor to a satellite-tracker website called heavens-above.com.
He was the first to capture the OTV-1 crossing his telescope's viewfinder a few days ago. Eventually, following information — including an anonymous email — about the OTV-1's probable orbit, he and fellow amateur enthusiasts were able to establish that it was the satellite in question.
Despite all the secrecy, the US military has insisted that the craft is non-aggressive. The OTV-1 has “no offensive capabilities”, a US Air Force official told The New York Times. But no-one is willing to say more about what the OTV-1 is doing or how long its flight will last. It could, we are told, be nine months before instructions are sent to the space craft to land itself at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
“I don't think this has anything to do with weapons,” Brian Weedon, a former Air Force orbital analyst, told space.com. “But because of the classification, the door opens to that. From a US perspective, that's counterproductive.”