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Is The X-37B A Spy Plane?

Pentagon Denies That The Spacecraft Is A Spy Satellite Test Bed

The mission of the X-37B Space Plane that launched from Cape Canaveral last month was shrouded in secrecy. And while the Pentagon insists that the project seeks "no offensive capabilities" as far as space-based weapons are concerned, Pentagon leaders have said that the spacecraft's ultimate mission would be to assist terrestrial war fighters with any number of missions. Some with inside knowledge of the program have suggested that the vehicle could be testing sensors for a new generation of spy satellites, which the Pentagon has also denied.

Civilian specialists, meanwhile, have said it could fly for up to 9 months before returning to California for a landing.  The New York Times reports that a group of amateur sky watchers has tracked X-37B as it orbits the earth. One person in Toronto said the spacecraft was passing over the same area once every four days. Ted Molczan said that is a fairly normal pattern for U.S. reconnaissance satellites.

On a clear night, the X-37B could be visible to the naked eye in some areas, appearing like a bright star moving across the sky. The amateur astronomers say they have tracked the ship from as far as 40 degrees north latitude to 40 degrees south latitude. That orbit would take it over some of the world's most troubled regions, such as Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and North Korea. It appears to be in an orbit at about 255 miles in altitude, circling the earth every 90 minutes, much like the shuttle.

The spacecraft, which resembles the shuttle but is about a quarter of its size with a 14 foot wingspan, was boosted into orbit on an Atlas 5 rocket with no real explanation of its mission. A Harvard astronomer who tracks launches and space activity said the secrecy included sending the rocket's upper stage into an undisclosed orbit around the sun, the first time the U.S. Government has done so.

Brian Weedon of the Secure World Foundation said the X-37B could prove to be a critical asset for rapid reconnaissance missions, based on the ability of crews to quickly change its payload and launch it into space. But the former Air Force officer questioned the need for all the secrecy. He told the paper that if the spacecraft could be located by a "bunch of amateurs," then it's likely our enemies could find it as well.

FMI: www.usaf.gov, www.nasa.gov

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