Spy satellites have become an integral part of the American defense infrastructure. While we still rely on spy planes, having downward facing observatories in orbit grants us the continued ability to keep tabs on international opponents, see troop and equipment movements, and gather intelligence that can supplement information gained through other sources. Having an eye in the sky (or a series of them) is invaluable to our nation’s defense efforts… but despite the term, that invaluable level of observation comes with a pretty hefty price tag.

Simple commercial satellites can often be planned, assembled and launched in as little as two to three years, while larger, more complex satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope can take more than a decade to go from the design phase to actual launch. The time and resources required to build such a complex piece of machinery, and to equip it with the latest in observation technologies, are formidable to say the least, and it’s likely that America’s most advanced spy satellites are at least near comparable in complexity and cost to orbiters like the Hubble.

A spy satellite designed today would include the most advanced observation and communications technologies available today – available, of course, meaning thoroughly vetted for reliability and effectiveness while within budget. That seems great, but because it could take a decade before today’s design sees deployment, the equipment we have in orbit is often outdated before it ever sees launch.

At the rate of digital advancement, ten years is practically a life time. Just to provide frame of reference, ten years ago today, the first ever iPhone still hadn’t been released for purchase yet. That means that in all likelihood, the best spy satellite we could launch into orbit today could potentially be equipped with tech made back when Snake was still one of the best games you could get on your cell phone.

Needless to say, this timeline is a hindrance to our intelligence gathering potential, but it’s not the only one. When designing a satellite for launch, the best we can do is attempt to predict the varied applications we’ll need it for in the coming decades, and equip it the best that we can to meet those predicted needs. That means that we could potentially end up with space-based assets that don’t do what we need them to do simply because our predictions weren’t completely accurate. An issue we realize we can’t address with our satellites today might prompt a new design – meaning we could then address today’s issue ten years from now, when there are certain to be new ones that have popped up since.

But the Air Force’s X-37 space plane could already be the answer to this problem. The X-37 is an unmanned drone that resembles the space shuttle, but is significantly smaller. It has already carried out a number of long-term orbital missions, though the Air Force has kept exactly what those missions are tightly under wraps. At the time I’m writing this, the X-37’s latest mission has kept it in orbit for 636 days, with no announced return date yet. Previous missions have kept it in orbit for two hundred to six hundred days at a time without breaking a sweat, each time prompting speculation about just what exactly it’s doing up there for such long stretches of time.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle sits on the runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (USAF Photo)

Most likely, it’s doing a number of different things – which would make the launch expense easier to justify, but it’s possible that, for the most part, the X-37 is a spy satellite that occasionally returns to earth to be refitted with the latest spy gadgetry based on current operational needs, shortfalls in our intelligence gathering apparatus, and new gear being rolled out for use. Unlike existing spy satellite platforms that may require upwards of ten years to deploy, the X-37 offers regularly scheduled (though secret) stops on Earth and in orbit, where it can circle above nations like Iran, North Korea, and China – as its current orbit actually does.

By serving as a mobile platform for spy satellite technologies, the Air Force’s X-37 can more quickly deploy new gear, return to the surface to replace, repair or maintain that gear, and then return to orbit once again, ensuring the United States always has the best and latest “eye in the sky” technology fielded where it can benefit us most.

Of course, until the Air Force opens the books on what they’ve been up to with their secretive space plane, this is all conjecture – but it seems likely that the Air Force, whose illustrious history of spying has included the SR71 Blackbird and the U2 Spy Plane, would recognize the tactical value of strapping a camera to the belly of the X-37 and bringing it home for tune ups from time to time.


Image courtesy of Boeing