David Whitehouse: What other mysterious craft are silently circling above us?

Share
Related Topics

We don't know very much about the US Air Force's X-37B, and its sudden appearance has surprised many space watchers. It is certainly unusual for a spacecraft that is supposed to be on a "technology development mission" to materialise in an orbit that is normally reserved for spy satellites. And while the amateur space watchers who spotted it did so with relative ease, the layman could be forgiven for wandering exactly what else might be up there that we don't know about.

Whatever other celestial secrets are out there, they are well-hidden among a remarkable array of other orbiting craft, governmental and commercial alike. And just over fifty years since the first artificial satellite was launched, our world has come to rely on them. Gone is the excitement that heralded the launch of Telstar, the first direct relay communications satellite, in 1962.

Today we take space communications for granted. We have satellite TV and acknowledge its provenance in its name, but we are usually unaware if our telephone, text messages, email or internet connections use satellite links.

The way space has been woven into everyday life is remarkable. In peace or war, space is the commanding high ground.

Not so long ago detailed images of the earth's surface taken by satellites were among the best kept secrets in the world. The United States in particular developed a series of classified spy satellites. Hollywood suggests they could read newspaper headlines from orbit. That is an exaggeration, but only just: they could certainly see if you were reading a tabloid or a broadsheet.

Every minute of every day pictures of sensitive areas were beamed to an anonymous building 30 miles west of Washington, DC for analysis at the US National Reconnaissance Office, top secret until 1994. Radio-listening spysats sift the electromagnetic spectrum when overflying enemy territory, and send signals to computers that extract military and civilian conversations and data transfers.

These days the military has competition. Although not as detailed as secret spy satellites, some commercial organisations have built craft that take remarkable images from space for clients that range from land use managers to building regulators. Some of the images have found their way on to Google Earth. Your house is almost certainly there.

Satellites have revolutionised science, too. We can monitor the ocean surface to a few millimetres. A pair of satellites can detect the minute change in a giant ice sheet's pull of gravity as it flexes and changes shape. And lest anyone think the skies are too full for any further extraordinary additions, consider the satellite that Japan launched last week – one of the strangest yet. Ikaros will pass by Venus in a few months and then voyage to the far side of the sun.

Along the way it will unfurl a series of ultra-thin metallic sails that will billow slightly as sunlight strikes them with a tiny but unremitting pressure. Scientists hope that this effect will one day provide a small probe with enough of a boost to leave our solar system altogether and head for the nearest star.

By then, the X-37B will be long out of service. But there seems little doubt that equally remarkable satellites will be following in its footsteps.



Dr David Whitehouse is a space scientist and author whose latest book is: One Small Step: The Inside Story of Space Exploration

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
 

Cameron's speech was an attempt to kill immigration as an election issue

Andrew Grice
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game