Transparency. Openness. International cooperation. These are some of the principles the U.S. should embrace in order to “safeguard U.S. satellites and protect space,” according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Problem is, one of America’s latest and greatest space gizmos runs afoul of those noble ideas. With its secretive X-37B “spaceplane,” the U.S. has been anything but transparent, open and cooperative.
The Air Force launched the 29-foot-long, Boeing-built X-37 in April. Now six months into a potential nine-month deployment, the X-37 periodically changes orbits, frustrating amateur satellite-spotters. Similar to the Space Shuttle, only smaller and fully robotic, the highly maneuverable X-37 includes a payload bay that can accommodate, well, practically anything. “You can put sensors in there, satellites in there,” said Eric Sterner, from The Marshall Institute. “You could stick munitions in there, provided they exist.”
The mysterious spaceplane and its capabilities were the subject of a detailed piece I wrote for The Diplomat this summer.
The X-37’s flexibility — “dual-use” is the technical term — itself could be a little alarming to other nations. Worse, the Air Force has declined to say exactly what X-37 is doing now and in the future. Gary Payton, Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, was as vague as possible in describing the bot’s mission. “Take a payload up, spend up to 270 days on orbit. They’ll run experiments to see if the new technology works.”
But it’s not science experiments that have got other countries worried.
They’re concerned that the X-37 could be used to spy on or even “hijack” their own satellites, using “inspection” gear tucked in its payload bay. Washington could get away with this sort of space espionage because no other government has the technology to comprehensively track the activities of other nations’ space vehicles. “When another state, say Russia or China, uses their dual-use technology, the U.S. has the ability to determine that that was not a hostile act,” said Brian Weeden, from the Secure World Foundation. “But when the U.S. does it, in most cases no one else has information to independently verify what’s going on. That creates a problem.”
To defuse the world’s alarm regarding the X-37, the U.S. should share space-tracking technology and data, Weeden said. That could result in a “verification regime” for space, similar to what the U.S. and Russia use to keep tabs on each other’s nuclear-armed bombers and missiles here on earth. “The tricky part, of course, is doing that while still protecting the pieces of that data that are essential to national security,” Weeden said. “It can be done, but it takes a fine balance.”
Despite promising to promote “responsible behavior in space,” the Obama administration’s actions, particularly with the X-37, have had the opposite effect. “Increasingly, insecurity about space activities and the motives behind them are creating friction among space-faring countries,” said Laura Grego, one of the UCS report’s authors. “If the Obama administration adopted our recommendations, it could help defuse these tensions and ensure a more secure future in space.”
1. ^ new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org)
2. ^ secretive X-37B “spaceplane (www.wired.com)
3. ^ changes orbits (www.csmonitor.com)
4. ^ amateur satellite-spotters (cs.astronomy.com)
5. ^ a detailed piece (the-diplomat.com)
6. ^ used to spy on (www.wired.com)
Excerpted from Secret U.S. Space Plane May Be Too Mysterious | Danger Room | Wired.com
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