Space: the final frontier in America's war on terror

Last month the US launched a secret drone to spy on Afghanistan and Iraq from orbit. The trouble is, it's been spotted. David Usborne reports on the launch of a secret spy drone

The United States may be retiring the last of its famous space shuttles in the coming months, but that does not mean that made-in-the-USA winged craft will be absent from the skies above. You may not have known it, but there is already such a thing orbiting the earth.

To the untrained eye, it looks a lot like the Atlantis or the Discovery, but its name isn't quite so evocative: this particular craft is called the X-37B. Unlike its forebears, its purpose is secretive and militaristic – so much so that it may be the first time America has put anything in space with an orbit that is officially secret.

There are other differences between it and the shuttles we know so well. The former is far smaller, for example, with a wing-span of just 14 feet and a length of 29 feet. (The shuttles are 122 feet long with 78-foot wingspans.) The new space explorer, moreover, is robotic with no humans on board.

No one is calling it a drone. But the connotations of clandestine warfare might not be entirely inappropriate. While every shuttle launch is attended by banks of cameras and spectators at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the launch, also from Canaveral, of this new craft one month ago was shrouded in a cloak of secrecy. Although the project began as part of Nasa, it was taken over by the Pentagon four years ago.

Some of that cloak is now being punctured, however, thanks to amateur sky-gazers in countries as far apart as Canada and South Africa. They think they have seen the craft, also known as Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1), in recent days. Seemingly, it is flying 255 miles up and circles the planet once every 90 minutes on a course that takes it south of New York City and, more importantly, directly over war zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the amateur sky-watchers is Kevin Fetter, a contributor to a satellite-tracker website called He was the first to capture the OTV-1 crossing his telescope's viewfinder a few days ago. Eventually, following tidbits of information – including an anonymous email – about the OTV-1's probable orbit, he and fellow amateur enthusiasts were able to establish that it was the satellite in question.

Despite all the secrecy, the US military has insisted that the craft is non-aggressive. The OTV-1 has "no offensive capabilities", a US Air Force official told The New York Times. But no one is willing to say more about what the OTV-1 is doing up there or how long its flight will last. It could, we are told, be nine months before instructions are sent from a command base in Colorado to the space craft to land itself at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

"I don't think this has anything to do with weapons," Brian Weedon, a former Air Force orbital analyst, told "But because of the classification, and the refusal to talk, the door opens to all that. From a US perspective, that's counterproductive."

He and other civilian observers speculate that the Pentagon hopes to use the space craft in the longer term for orbital surveillance and reconnaissance better to support commanders in the battlefield.

That might mean loading it with radar or optical equipment or with new surveillance satellites. Alternatively, if it could be fitted with a grabbing arm, the vehicle might be able to pluck satellites out of the sky and put them into an orbit more suited to the needs of the military.

The spacecraft was launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket from a Canaveral pad on 22 April. At the time, Gary Payton, Air Force Deputy Under Secretary for Space Programs, answered a few questions to reporters. He confirmed that the craft was being sent up, but said little more. "On this flight the main thing we want to emphasise is the vehicle itself, not really what's going on in the on-orbit phase," he offered.

Pretending it did not exist was never an option, according to Ted Molczan, another satellite spotter based in Toronto. "Even if you want to keep it a secret, if the guys with binoculars can find it, so can anyone," he said. "Almost everything up there is in a known orbit, either because the US government publishes it, or because we've already found it. So it's really about the process of elimination."

The spacecraft, which can remain powered up for months at a time thanks to solar panels, was built by Boeing Company. A second is on order.

Floor cleaner sees through cloak of secrecy

Kevin Fetter, 36, lives at home with his mother. He cleans floors for a living. He is also the man who discovered a spy shuttle whose operations the United States had gone to great lengths to keep a secret.

Mr Fetter was at work on a nightshift at a petrol station in Ontario, Canada, when the telescope he had left hooked up to a DVD recorder at home picked up a bright spot zooming across the lens. Reviewing the footage the next day, Mr Fetter, who has been a recreational stargazer for years, saw the flash and compared its orbits to other known spacecraft and satellites; finding nothing, he checked its route with an online group of enthusiasts.

It was Ted Molczan, another hobbyist in Toronto, who made the connection with the shuttle quietly launched last month. Mr Fetter remains amazed by his discovery.

"I saw it by pure luck, just because I was aimed at a certain area of sky," he told Toronto's The Globe and Mail. He had once before made a remarkable find, when he located, with his home equipment, a $100,000 (£69,000) tool bag lost by an astronaut before Nasa picked it up – to the amazement of his mother. Even at work he casts his eyes upwards: "Customers come in and say they've seen me staring at the sky."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower