Amateur Sky-Watchers Track the Air Force's Super-Secret Space Plane

By Andrew Moseman | May 24, 2010 10:41 am

X37BYou can’t slip much past dedicated amateur astronomers. A month after the United States Air Force launched its space plane, the X-37B, under a veil of secrecy, backyard sky-watchers say they’ve found it, along with clues to its mission.

Though the military still won’t open up about what the classified X-37B actually is, officers have been insistent about what it isn’t: a space weapon. Indeed, defense experts have guessed recently that the craft is testing next-generation spy satellite tech, and the observations back that up.

The amateur sky watchers have succeeded in tracking the stealthy object for the first time and uncovering clues that could back up the surveillance theory. Ted Molczan, a team member in Toronto, said the military spacecraft was passing over the same region on the ground once every four days, a pattern he called “a common feature of U.S. imaging reconnaissance satellites.” In six sightings, the team has found that the craft orbits as far north as 40 degrees latitude, just below New York City. In theory, on a clear night, an observer in the suburbs might see the X-37B as a bright star moving across the southern sky [The New York Times].

In addition, the plane’s path would carry it over places the U.S. is interested in watching, like Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea, according to Greg Roberts, one of the astronomers to track the X-37B. More than uncovering its secret mission, he was interested in finding the plane because it was difficult. Said Roberts:

“If the data were freely available, we would probably not have bothered with it. I see little sense in tracking objects for which data is freely available. It’s like reinventing the wheel. So as long as there are missions with little or no information, I personally will be interested in the challenge of finding them” [MSNBC].

For more about the Air Force in space, check out DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait’s post at Bad Astronomy.

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: What Is the Air Force Doing with Space?
80beats: Air Force to Launch Secret Space Plane Tomorrow—But Don’t Ask What It’s For
80beats: DARPA Loses Contact with Mach-20 “Hypersonic Glider” During Test Flight

Image: U.S. Air Force

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • Lady Luck

    Where’s the social responsibility? Seriously, the military is there to keep us safe, let’s not reveal all their secrets, eh?

  • Keith

    Lady Luck, I imagine that if some amateurs can find the thing on their spare time, China’s full time intelligence analysts found it a while ago.

  • Nate

    Lady Luck, you truly are an idiot if you think dedicated intelligence teams hadn’t found out something about it if a bunch of amateurs could do so. Also, the ‘they’re keeping us safe by not telling us anything’ crap only flies so far, and it’s getting to the point now that it no longer flies.

  • http://www.islandfrank.com Frank Tuma

    People can have an opinion can’t they. Is it necessary to call them names if you don’t agree?
    Hum a song, cool down and be nice,this recession is making people mean.

  • Larry

    You said it Frank. Let’s be nice.

  • Derka

    well if the airforce didnt want anyone to find it at all…dont you think they would make it that way

  • humble reader

    @ lady luck, i’d like to gently suggest that military operations keeping us safe is
    nearly as oxymoronic as “military intelligence”. Leaking missle silos, contaminated
    submarine bases in our backyard, or nuclear test fallout downwind over midwest
    towns without warning. When everything is ash and rubble the only “survivors” will
    be the military establishment buried in mountains and sailing under the sea.
    Civilians are only collateral in this day and age.

  • Theo

    Let me just say as a person that has dealt with sensitive military knowledge in the past, that the reason for classification is never as cool as people think it is, not to mention there are tonnes of restricted things people can access through the internet, which they don’t even know is restricted. So you can see the real world is not as interesting as most people’s imaginations.

  • katie

    this is a fail

  • katie

    hahahahahahhahahahah this is a fail

  • Cory

    We have enough nukes to turn most of the planet to ash — the military has no real need to “protect” us from “rogue states” like North Korea.

    If we focused more on, you know, ourselves and immediate security, we’d have nothing to fear at all.

  • m

    why is the USA sending spy planes over Canadian space?

    at least – that’s what’s implied from some guy in Toronto.

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