America’s top-secret space drone is coming home today after a record 22 months in orbit—and we have no idea how it spent its time up there.
The X-37B, made by Boeing for the U.S. Air Force, is catnip for space fans, but despite lots of public interest and plenty of speculation, we know next to nothing about the futuristic craft.
“Unfortunately, because the X-37B program is highly classified, our contract stipulates that we not discuss the program publicly,” a Boeing spokesperson told Quartz last year. “We in fact have never done any interview on this program, on or off the record.”
The space plane—at 30 ft. long, it’s about a quarter of the size of the space shuttle—is launched on top of a rocket, but can fly back to Earth and land, just as the shuttle could. But what has it been doing up there in the meantime?
For a while, people thought it might be part of a plot to spy on Tiangong 1, China’s space station. But their two orbits don’t match up well for eavesdropping, something that even amateur astronomers can discern.
“Then the question is, is [spying on the space station] something that’s useful from the X-37B?” asks Dean Cheng, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation and a skeptic of that theory. “Are there other satellites up there, are there recon satellites, that can also do the job of imaging the Tiangong and might actually do it better, more efficiently, in more detail?”