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 heavens-above.com. 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 space.com. "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."