Secret X-37B Space Plane Sighted by Amateur Satellite Watchers

May 25, 2010 Updated: October 8, 2018

OFF TO THE SPACE: A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle launches April 22, 2010, from Cape Canaveral, FL. (Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)
OFF TO THE SPACE: A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle launches April 22, 2010, from Cape Canaveral, FL. (Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)
The unmanned X-37B space plane that was launched last month amid much secrecy was finally spotted by amateur satellite watchers in various regions of the world, gleaming as brightly as the stars of the Big Dipper.

On the night of May 23, 2010, a man identified as “Gary O.” was able to photograph the X-37B space plane as it streaked across the sky near his home in Fort Davis, Texas, according to Spaceweather.com. The plane was also sighted independently by amateur satellite watchers Greg Roberts in Cape Town, South Africa, and Kevin Fetter of Brockville, Canada. With this information, Ted Molczan of Toronto, Canada, was able to determine the space plane’s orbit.

Greg Roberts told Space.com that it was difficult to find the X-37B due to its low orbiting altitude and the unknown degree of inclination. However, with the help of other dedicated sky watchers, images were taken of the plane traveling across the sky, allowing him to estimate the degree of inclination. Ted Molczan was then able to compile a range of possible orbits in which the plane could be found, leading to his discovery of the X-37B’s orbit.

The U.S. Air Force launched the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1 on April 22 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with no documented mission name, objective, or projected time of return. Last week, US Air Force deputy Gary Payton denied rumors that the X-37B is being used as a space weapon. At the same time, Space.com reported that although the contents of the space plane's cargo hold — estimated at the size of a pickup truck bed — still remain a mystery, the space plane was most likely an orbital spy vehicle.

The X-37B is the first space vehicle with the capability to return experiments back to Earth for further analysis. The launching of the X-37B will also aid in the testing of new technologies designed to allow greater and more affordable space access. Space.com reports that a second X-37B is scheduled for a test mission in 2011.

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