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The Pentagon’s Secret Space Drone Is Finally Coming Home

After a spy mission nearly two years long, America’s robotic space plane is coming back to Earth.

10.13.14 6:19 PM ET

The U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B robotic space plane is expected to return to Earth on Tuesday after nearly two years in space. But while it is no secret that the Air Force has sent the unmanned spacecraft into orbit at least three times, the service refuses to say what the machine has been doing up there.

While most Air Force and industry officials refuse to talk about the program at all, sources familiar with the program indicated to The Daily Beast that the X-37B is designed to carry experimental payloads of sensors—like various high-tech cameras of various types, electronic sensors and ground-mapping radars.

The idea is that the X-37B carries “specialized”  sensors packages that can be reconfigured as needed for each mission when the aircraft returns to Earth. That ability to reconfigure the robotic spacecraft makes the X-37B cheaper and more flexible than a satellite—which goes up once with one package of sensors and is eventually discarded. Satellites can often cost billions of dollars and cannot reconfigured or reused, unlike the X-37B.

Further, the X-37B can maneuver more freely once it is in space. Unlike a satellite, which is placed into orbit with a finite amount of fuel, the X-37B can be topped with more fuel for its thrusters when it returns to Earth. It can even change orbits. That ability gives the spacecraft much more flexibility than a traditional satellite.

The X-37B will return to Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, according to the Air Force. It will be the space-plane’s third such landing—assuming the weather holds up and nothing technical goes wrong.

“Team Vandenberg stands ready to implement safe landing operations for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the third time for this unique mission,” Col. Keith Baits, 30th Space Wing commander said in a statement on Oct. 10.

The spaceship was launched on Dec. 11, 2012, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Ever since the X-37B made its first flight back in 2010, outlandish rumors and bizarre conspiracy theories have dogged the Boeing-built space drone. Some wags suggested in the past that the X-37B would be used to tap into the communications of foreign satellites, however the Pentagon has other easier and more effective means to listen in on those spacecraft. 

An even more outlandish theory was that the X-37B would be used to physically interfere with foreign satellites—perhaps even abducting those machines from orbit. However, the possibility that Air Force would have designed the X-37B for that kind of mission was extremely remote. It would be very easy to trace that sort of activity back to the U.S. government since governments and amateurs alike can easily track the X-37B.

Another theory that was batted around was that the X-37B was some kind of orbital bomber that could strike at foreign lands with only a few moments notice. Technically, that could be semi-feasible—and indeed the Pentagon is working a weapon that would be able to hit targets anywhere on Earth in less than an hour that could be launched from within the continental United States.

However, the X-37B is not likely to be designed for that so-called “conventional prompt global strike” mission—though it is not entirely inconceivable that it could carry a weaponized payload. But any sophisticated foe like Russia or China has the ability to track the X-37B in orbit very easily and it may not be particularly useful in such a capacity.

And then there would be the political backlash. Space-based weapons are a hugely controversial topic and the U.S. is not likely to deploy such systems given the proclivities of the Obama administration.

It’s one of the many reasons why informed observers—like Brian Weeden, a former officer with the U.S. Air Force’s Space Command—have long considered the space plan to be an orbital spy. “I think it is primarily an ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) platform for testing new sensor technologies or validating new technologies.” Weeden told The Daily Beast in April. “The current [vehicle] on orbit has basically been in the same orbit since launch, with only the occasional maneuver to maintain that orbit. That’s consistent with a remote sensing/ISR mission.” 

And it’s probably no coincidence that the X-37B’s orbit takes it over North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China. There are some items in those countries that the Pentagon might want to see from space.