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 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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
Danielle George is both science professor and presenter
people
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015