Note: this feature was first published on The First Post on 26 April 2010. The First Post became TheWeek.co.uk in 2011, but the piece can still be seen on the Internet Archive.
A top secret robotic space plane has blasted off from Cape Canaveral, and the involvement of a US military agency in the project has Iran – and maybe China – worried about the possibilities of what could be a prototype ‘space bomber’.
Officially, the X-37B (above) is on a test flight to evaluate the vehicle’s Performance. But the space plane’s pedigree as an offshoot of the shuttle programme has led some to suggest it could eventually conduct espionage missions in orbit – and is another step on the road to the “weaponisation of space”.
The X-37 project was begun in 1999 by Nasa and built by Boeing’s evocatively titled Phantom Works division. It was envisaged as a ‘lifeboat’ for the International Space Station.
But in 2004 Nasa ditched it and development was taken over by the secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has the stated aim of “maintaining technological superiority of the US military and preventing technological surprise”.
Now in the hands of the US Air Force, the X-37B finally piggybacked into orbit aboard an Atlas V rocket yesterday, two years late. Gary Payton, the US Air Force’s deputy under-secretary for space programmes said the mission’s top priorities were “getting into orbit, getting the payload bay doors open, the solar array deployed, learning about on-orbit attitude control and bringing it all back”.
The length of the mission is unknown, but the X-37B, which looks like a cross between a space shuttle and a cruise missile, can stay in orbit for up to 270 days. When it returns, it will autonomously navigate its way back to land at the Vandenberg Air Force base in California – the first robotic re-entry in the history of the US space programme.
America’s enemies are watching closely. Iran’s government mouthpiece, Press TV, has dubbed the X-37B a “secret space warplane” and a “first generation of US ‘space Predator drones'” in a reference to the automated fighter planes the US military uses in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The truth is, according to Rick Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, the US already has a ‘space bomber’: it’s called the space shuttle and it’s about to be retired.
“For the US it is very fortunate that this long overdue programme reaches its testing point the year the space shuttle retires,” says Fisher. “The X-37B, like the space shuttle before it, provides a much-needed commodity in the dangerous uncertainty of space: deterrence.”
Fisher explains that in the 1970s Moscow viewed the US shuttle as a ‘space bomber’ aimed at them. As a result, the Russians proceeded to launch a series of space combat programmes that would have given them military space dominance in the 1990s had the Soviet Union not fallen.
Documents declassified by Moscow show that the now-defunct MIR space station was intended as a base for up to four Soviet wingless space shuttle bombers.
It has been suggested that the space shuttle’s large, heat-shielded wings were proof that the vehicle had dual-use military capabilities.
As for the X-37B, its ability to manoeuvre whilst in orbit, and carry or pick up a payload, has led to the conjuring up of exotic James Bond scenarios. For example, it could take off into the kind of ‘stealth orbit’ between the North and South Poles favoured by spy satellites, ‘kidnap’ a foreign spy satellite and bring it home.
The owner of the spy satellite would suspect what had happened, because it is impossible to hide a Cape Canaveral launch, but they would be able to prove nothing.
Fisher confirms the X-37B can perform a range of non-military or military missions as the US leadership pleases – an ambiguity of purpose that serves America well in a world where China seems keen to pursue its own weaponisation of space.
“Did the US Air Force have secret space combat payloads for the shuttle?” asks Fisher. “I don’t know, but I am very grateful that the Soviets and others had to consider that possibility. I am also assured that China and others now have to consider the military potential of the X-37B.”
China may already be developing its own space shuttle, Fisher says. The Shenlong or ‘divine dragon’ test vehicle (pictured above in 2007) could be Beijing’s response to the X-37B.
“For sure, China will soon have its own similar weapon; if you hadn’t noticed, we are in an arms race in space. But who do you want to win this race? The Americans who have provided your GPS since 1996, or the Chinese who would turn off your GPS if some elementary school put a Taiwanese flag in its play?”
Image credit: US Air Force photo/ Michael Stonecypher