Secret US spaceplane is tracked down

A new top secret spaceplane has been located and tracked by amateur skywatchers as it begins its surveillance mission for the Pentagon. The unmanned mini-shuttle, called X-37B, was launched by the US Air Force on April 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

secret spaceplane
An early artist's illustration of the X-37b

Built by Boeing and hidden within an Atlas V rocket, it had taken a decade to develop. It was said to combine the agility of an airplane with the speed of a spacecraft.

Nothing was revealed about the spaceplane’s purpose or flightpath. But just a month after its launch, it has been found and photographed, Spaceweather.com reports today.

The observations show that X-37B is in a low orbit that can carry it over the world’s major flashpoints including Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.

The spaceplane was spotted independently, moving like a bright star, by amateur satellite watchers Greg Roberts of Cape Town, South Africa, and Kevin Fetter of Brockville, Canada, on May 20. Their measurements allowed another enthusiast, Ted Molczan, of Toronto to calculate the craft’s actual orbit.

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From that data, Kevin Fetter was able to find the X-37B again the following night and photograph it flying against the starry background.

Others have pictured it too. The sightings show that the spaceplane only flies as far north as 40 degrees latitude. And now that the cat is out of the bag, you can get predictions for viewing X-37B yourself at Heavens Above.

There are rumours that the craft would be capable of carrying bombs as a space weapon but these are said to have been denied by officials. Instead experts believe it is testing testing new spy satellite technology.

In January 2008, an amateur astronomer in the UK took the first photo of a secret US spy satellite as it began tumbling to Earth in a faulty orbit.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

©PAUL SUTHERLAND, Skymania.com
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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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