Resembling a miniature version of the iconic space shuttle, the one currently in orbit is the second to fly there, the first having actually landed last December at Vandenberg Air Force base after more than seven months in flight.
The truth, they say is definitely out there, in the shape of the U.S Air Force X-37B, highly secret unmanned space plane, an experimental craft which has been circling the globe Earth at 17,000 miles per hour for over a year now, despite being due to land in California in December, and no one knows why the mission of the orbital test vehicle was extended.
Resembling a miniature version of the iconic space shuttle, the one currently in orbit is the second to fly there, the first having actually landed last December at Vandenberg Air Force base after more than seven months in flight, the 29ft solar-powered craft having had an original 270 day mission, this second one to further test the technology.
Lieutenant-colonel Tom McIntyre, systems program director, said initial plans had been for a 9-month mission, but leaving the X-37 up there will provide extra time for experimentation, getting maximum mission value. There are those believing that the craft is really to do with spying or defence, some thinking that spying on the new Chinese space station, Tiangong is the real purpose.
Analysts say, however, that such surveillance would be very difficult at the passing speeds of the two craft. Amateur astronomers had tracked the orbital pattern of the first X-37B craft, passing over Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and North Korea, heightening covert surveillance suspicion, though it could be simply that the USAF is just using of the amazing fuel efficiency of the craft to show off the credentials it offers and protect it from budget cuts that might consign it to the scrapheap.
Budget cuts, for 2013 - 2017, that have been put forward by the Obama administration include the shutdown of the office responsible for developing the X-37, manufactured by Boeing, and designed to operate in low-earth orbit, from 110 - 500 miles above planet, the International Space Station orbiting at some 220 miles out.
Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in March last year, this current mission could well be the last, unless the extended flight-time and fuel efficient performance persuade the powers-that-be to keep the X-37B as a going concern, though just now the outlook is far from promising.