An orbiting weapons platform, a spy plane, or a decade-old, billion-dollar money pit. The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space planes are a cloak-and-dagger project, but their secret orbits are known, and that discovery was made, in part, by Canadians. They’re part of an international organization of volunteer skywatchers who’ve been tracking secret government satellites for over 30 years.
The purpose of the planes is now a closely guarded secret, but they started as an open NASA project before being moved to the air force, so some information about them is known. The first X-37B is on the ground following its initial mission, which lasted from April to December 2010, and its sister is currently in orbit. They look like miniature versions of the space shuttle, with stubby wings for gliding at high altitudes, a solar panel array that keeps them powered in space, and a cargo bay about the size of a standard pickup truck’s bed. They’re also fully robotic, and their launches led to speculation, especially from the Chinese and Russian governments, that the U.S. was attempting to weaponize space.
But well before the rocket boosters ignited, members of SeeSat-L, a mailing-list-based international organization of skywatchers, were already working to crack the secret of the crafts’ orbit. “There’s this question of secrecy, and how much should the public know about what’s going on in space,” says Ted Molczan, 58, a Toronto-based lifelong skywatcher and director of SeeSat’s online newsgroup. “If it’s in an orbit that isn’t published, then it’s of interest to us.”
The network is made up of about 500 observers, around 20 of whom specialize in tracking spy satellites. Its roots go back to the height of the space age through the 1960s—most of the observers are 60-plus—when governments used global teams of amateur volunteers to keep track of early satellites. They enjoyed a heyday until the ’80s, when advanced sensors made them redundant and the military started classifying its orbits. This nearly killed satellite watching, but the observers are a resilient bunch. “A lot of us would have been at loose ends, but those who pioneered the idea of tracking the secret stuff created a way forward,” says Molczan.
So, in the early ’80s, the observers started working against governments by watching for secret satellites and publishing their orbits. Currently they track more than 300 satellites, and Molczan knew he had to add to that number when he heard the second X-37B was launching.
Hiding such an event is nearly impossible. Governments must publish the planned trajectory of rockets to avoid mid-air collisions and to keep seaways, where rocket debris falls, clear of shipping traffic. Molczan and other observers map out these trajectories and use them to make an educated guess of what a satellite’s initial orbit will look like. The information is published to the newsgroup, and anyone with a clear view from their part of the world is asked to join in the search. They wait until twilight or just before dawn—when the sky is dark but satellites are still illuminated by the sun—then point their telescopes and cameras up, and wait.
“It’s pretty time-consuming stuff, and it’s a pretty fair approximation of work,” says Molczan, who regularly spends 20 hours a week either preparing for launches, analyzing observations, or observing the sky himself. “You could say our hobby is a bit off the beaten path.”
But it’s one with its own rewards. About two weeks after the X-37B’s launch, on March 24, another Ontario skywatcher, named Kevin Fetter, recorded a strange light zipping across the sky. He searched a database of known satellites and didn’t find any matches. He was afraid he’d found a large piece of scrap. “I thought, ‘Oh great, not again,’ ” he says.
But he sent his data to Molczan anyway, who in turn crunched the numbers and realized Fetter had most likely found the X-37B. Within hours, Greg Roberts, a colleague in South Africa, notified Molczan of a second sighting. This was one more step toward confirmation, and gave Molczan enough information to figure out a rough orbit. “I took his data and, son of a gun, it worked. I quickly passed that to some others on our mailing list, and the next morning we had a confirming observation.”
It may seem like a fruitless endeavour, but discovering the ship’s flight path has given the group some crucially important data. Unlike most objects in orbit, the X-37B passes over precisely the same area every few days, a common feature of spy satellites. It also tracks along the equator—most satellites have polar orbits—which gives it the opportunity to collect precision data from countries such as Iran, Libya and China.
Still, not everyone believes the X-37Bs are meant for reconnaissance, and John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a weapons analysis organization, says they may not really have any purpose at all. “The thing has been around for a decade. I don’t know how much money has been spent on it, but it would have to be at least a billion dollars,” he says. “It’s taken on a life of its own, and you’ve had program managers who have tried to keep this thing going—they’re not going to get promoted if the thing never flies.”
Brian Weedon, a former air force officer and technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation, an endowment that advocates for the peaceful use of space, says the usefulness of the X-37Bs shouldn’t be discounted. He says information released on the project while it was being overseen by NASA reveals that it could function perfectly as a kind of outer-space Swiss Army knife.
“You don’t get a lot of value for your money—unless you need to bring things back down,” he says, adding that this unique ability to return to Earth makes the vehicle perfect for testing new satellite and spacecraft technologies, or for running high-orbit experiments.
Even Pike admits that the X-37Bs could be more valuable than the sum of their parts, regardless of whether they have practical applications. Russia is already building a similar craft, and unconfirmed reports suggest China is as well—meaning that, at the very least, the U.S. has managed to get its rivals to divert hundreds of millions of dollars into a sci-fi McGuffin.
And, says Weedon, no one will be using the X-37Bs as weapons. They’re big, bright and easy to detect compared to traditional satellites; they can’t carry enough material to drop bombs; and they glide too slowly to work as an orbital weapon themselves. But that hasn’t stopped the vehicle from starting a paranoia-driven, Cold-War-style miniature space race.
“If you don’t know what’s going on you start to speculate, become paranoid and make bad decisions,” says Weedon. This, he adds, is where the hobbyists come in. “More information benefits security; the amateurs and hobbyist observers serve a big part of that,” he says. “They’re not beholden to any one government—they’re honest operators.”
Molczan, for his part, is just happy to have his hobby. “Who owns space? If something goes up there, why shouldn’t we know? Who decides that?” he asks. “I sort of liken it to tug-of-war. I respect the rights of owners of satellites to restrict information. But I assert my own right to discover what is in orbit using my own resources.”