Since it began to go to space, there has been a lot of mystery and controversy about USAF's X-37B spacecraft. Despite the fact that this militarized version of NASA's orbital car has completed several space flights since the first in 2010, we still have no idea what its true purpose is. But so far, the wise money seems to be on an advanced spy plan.
Hope to collect traces for this issue, skywatcher and satellite tracker Ralf Vandebergh in the Netherlands have spent the last couple of months hunting for this spacecraft in the night sky. Recently, he was fortunate enough not only to find the creepy X-37B in the sky, but also managed to snap some photographs of it. Considering its dimensioning size and secretive character, it wasn't a little feat!
Vandebergh first placed the floor plan back in May after several months trying to track it. However, his attempt to photograph it was initially countered when the spacecraft did not appear to follow a predictable circuit pattern. But with a little help from the amateur astronomers' community, it succeeded in re-buying it just over a week ago.
As he submitted in a recent interview with Live Science :
"When I tried to observe it again [in] in mid-June, it did not meet the expected time and path. It turned out to have maneuvered to another lane. Thanks to the amateur satellite observer's network, it was quickly found in orbit again and I could take some pictures on June 30 and July 2. "
People will recognize the X-37B aka. Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) – due to its similarity to the retired NASA Space Shuttle. This is no coincidence as this spacecraft was also developed by Boeing, one of the main contractors on the orbiter element of the space shuttle. And much like its predecessor, the X-37B is designed to test reusable technology, is sent into space using a starter vehicle and returns to the ground under its own power.
Unlike its predecessor, the X-37B is very small, measuring only 8.92 m (29 ft) in length and 4.55 m (14 ft 11) from one wing tip to the other. In contrast, the orbiter element in the space shuttle measures a length of 56.1 m and a diameter of 8.7 m. This makes the X-37B the smallest spacecraft ever built. As
"It really is a small object, even at only 300 kilometers [186 miles] height, so do not expect the level of detail of terrestrial images of the real space shuttle … We can recognize a little of the nose, load load and tail of this minibus, with even a sign of slightly smaller details. "
However, Vandebergh has managed to track the spacecraft manually using his 6 × 30 finderscope. He then photographed the spacecraft using his 10-inch F / 4.8 aperture Newtonian telescope and an Astrolumina ALccd 5L-11 mono CMOS camera. With the help of some processing, the image shows X-37B with its payload doors open.
This latest flight (OTV-5) constitutes the fifth aircraft for the spacecraft, which has now spent a total of more than 666 days in space. The OTV-5 started on September 7, 2017, when the spacecraft was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. This launch took place despite the fact that Hurricane Irma threatened the peninsula at that time.
What the X-37B does on this latest mission, and when it will end, these objects remain classified. However, given that the spacecraft is officially billed as a technology demonstration and testing vehicle, it is possible that this is what it has done all the time. Perhaps the tests gather information for the creation of a next-generation space battle, something that would go into creating a "space force" one day!
Whether this act of orbital sleuthing is a testament to the citizens' abilities of researchers and the role they play in modern astronomy. Thanks to sophisticated instruments, the availability of online resources and data sharing today enables amateurs and volunteers to make a significant contribution and do the things observatories and research institutions cannot do.
Additional reading: Live Science