The Air Force’s X-37B is a Boeing-built unmanned spacecraft that bears a striking resemblance to the old Space Shuttle (despite being significantly smaller). Although the program itself is shrouded in secrecy, its long-term orbital missions often make the headlines, thanks in no small part to the decidedly un-secret sonic booms the platform creates over Florida upon reentry. Publicly, little is known about the X-37Bs mission, capabilities, or internal technology — but it’s certainly caught the attention of near-peer opponents like China, who are already feverishly working on their own equivalent.

US Air Force photoSo what exactly is this secretive space-plane up to? Let’s be clear up front: any assertions or apparent conclusions formed in the body of this piece should be filed in your mind under “informed conjecture.” Because of the classified nature of the program, it’s impossible to say with real certainty what the X-37B is up to, but by following its operational progression from the platform’s first drop test in 2006 to its latest record-breaking orbital mission that concluded earlier this year, there’s enough information available to make a few deductive leaps regarding its value as both a technology demonstrator and surveillance platform in one.

The high cost of spy satellites

While we still rely on spy planes for some operations, 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 government and contractor team loads the first GPS III satellite for transport aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington

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. That means the most advanced spy satellites in the world today likely carry technology that was designed back when most people were still texting using T9 (if you’re not familiar with that term, ask your parents).

The X-37B can deploy the latest surveillance technology years sooner than satellites