The US Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle has just recently passed a significant milestone: the vehicle has been operating in space for over a year now.
Little is known about its classified duties, other than that it has a pickup truck-sized payload bay and has been observed by stargazers to change orbits periodically. Possible uses for the pilot-less space plane could be ferrying supplies to the International Space Station or spying on other countries’ spacecraft.
Similar to the Space Shuttle, only smaller and fully robotic, the highly maneuverable X-37 includes a payload bay that can accommodate, well, practically anything. “You can put sensors in there, satellites in there,” said Eric Sterner, from The Marshall Institute. “You could stick munitions in there, provided they exist.”
The X-37′s flexibility — “dual-use” is the technical term — itself could be a little alarming to other nations. Worse, the Air Force has declined to say exactly what the X-37B is doing now and in the future. Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, was as vague as possible in describing the robot’s mission. “Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit. They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works.”
But it’s not science experiments that have other countries worried.
They’re concerned that the X-37B could be used to spy onor maybe even “hijack” their own satellites, using “inspection” gear tucked in its payload bay.
Washington could get away with this sort of space espionage because no other government has the technology to comprehensively track the activities of other nations’ space vehicles. “When another state, say Russia or China, uses their dual-use technology, the U.S. has the ability to determine that that was not a hostile act,” said Brian Weeden, from the Secure World Foundation. “But when the U.S. does it, in most cases no one else has information to independently verify what’s going on. That creates a problem.”
To defuse the world’s alarm regarding the X-37B, the United States should share space-tracking technology and data, Weeden said. That could result in a “verification regime” for space, similar to what the United States and Russia use to keep tabs on each other’s nuclear-armed bombers and missiles here on earth. “The tricky part, of course, is doing that while still protecting the pieces of that data that are essential to national security,” Weeden said. “It can be done, but it takes a fine balance.”
Despite promising to promote “responsible behavior in space,” the Obama administration’s actions, particularly with the X-37B, have had the opposite effect.
“Increasingly, insecurity about space activities and the motives behind them are creating friction among space-faring countries,” said Laura Grego, one of the UCS report’s authors. “If the Obama administration adopted our recommendations, it could help defuse these tensions and ensure a more secure future in space.”