Sunday, September 30, 2012

Speculating About The X37-B's Secret Mission

I love reading about black ops programs. I'm not a conspiracy theory kook, but top secret military/espionage yarns are really appealing to me. That's why I like reading Tom Clancy, and speculating about things such as what the heck is the X37-B doing in space?

For those not in the know, shame on you. The X37-B is an experimental plane that had been in space for quite a while. No one knows for sure what it was doing while it was out in space: But it was doing something in its experiment bay that was ostensibly being tested or evaluated.

A lot of people have looked at the design of the X37-B to come up with its "top secret" purpose. Frankly, I think this is barking up the wrong tree.

The X37-B looks like a mini space shuttle that can maneuver in space remotely. With the space shuttle program shutting down, the U.S. military needs a way to get back up there. The X37-B is one way of doing so fairly quickly. So who cares about the X37-B? It's an unmanned bus to space.

To solve the mystery of the X37-B, the trick is not to focus on the what – but on the why.

Why does the Air Force want to be up in space? Let's make a list, shall we?
  • The ability to install new satellites
  • The ability to destroy enemy satellites
  • The ability to protect an existing satellite via weapons
  • The ability to hide an existing satellite via stealth technology
  • The ability to deploy a highly maneuverable satellite (including itself as a satellite)
  • The ability to repair, recharge, refuel and upgrade (and yes, rearm) military satellites
  • The ability to test components and modules for future satellites, specifically with regard to image resolution and quality
Now let's try to rank these into buckets of likelihood. The payload of the X37-B seems to small (and too cost-prohibitive) to launch or place new satellites in orbit. Ditto for carrying weapons to destroy enemy satellites or protecting satellites via weapons (i.e. anti-missile or rocket jamming technologies).

The last three are intriguing to me. What if the Air Force could develop stealth satellites that aren't visible? What about disguising a satellite as space junk? What if the X37-B was designed to carry stuff that could protect or hide the exact location of a satellite, either by serving as a target decoy or employing anti-missile technologies to zap a missile before it reaches the target satellite?

Obviously, the X37-B is a great (if expensive) "rent a satellite" plane so that it could be scrambled relatively quickly to monitor a hotspot somewhere in the world. In that context, it makes sense that an X37-B would be used to test components and modules for future satellites without going through the expense of a whole launch.

Even more intriguing is the fact that the X37-B is very maneuverable in space and able to get to other satellite locations fairly easily. What if the payload carried two arms? One to grab the satellite, the other to repair, recharge, refuel and/or upgrade components. With the Space Shuttle out of commission, this seems like a very important mission.

I know there's no hard evidence to back up anything, but my gut says that the payloads are for testing future satellite technologies only, and nothing more exciting than that. Feel free to respond if you have your own theory…

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