By John Oncea, Editor
In December 2023, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B and China's Shenlong were launched. Both spaceplanes are shrouded in secrecy, though amateur trackers report Shenlong released six objects into orbit, fueling concerns about potential space warfare and the strategic implications of these developments. The secrecy surrounding both spaceplanes and their potential for espionage and conflict in space raises concerns about the vulnerability of the global commons in space.
In late 2022, the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 6 (OTV-6) successfully deorbited and landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility. We wrote about the landing, as well as the experiments – some made public, others kept under wraps – conducted on board the unmanned space vehicle.
A little more than a year later – December 29, 2023, to be exact – SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, carrying the space plane on its seventh mission (OTV-7) to … well, no one knows. OTV-7’s launch came two weeks after China’s launch of its reusable test spacecraft, known as the Shenlong, or “Divine Dragon,” by a Long March-2F carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.
As little is known about X-37B, it appears less is known about China’s spaceplane. “Some in the industry speculate it is a doppelganger of the X-37B in form and function, though no official photos of the vehicle have been released,” writes CNN. A report by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency says Shenlong “will test out reusable space technology and carry out unspecified science experiments ‘for the peaceful use of space.’”
One thing believed to be true at the time of this writing, according to Cosmos, is the X-37B has been boosted into “higher orbits” while Shenlong is operating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). “Both have attracted global attention, with military, commercial, and amateur operations all watching for what happens next.”
What Little We Do Know
The X-37B is an integral part of the United States Air Force and Space Force, and two operational spaceplanes have spent a combined 3,774 days in space over the first six missions. It is not designed to transport humans and it has been suggested that it could be used for espionage. This speculation is further fueled by X-37B’s ability to change orbit and launch existing satellites into space.
Both the military and NASA have used the X-37B for experiments and demonstrations of technology: from testing solar panels in space capable of transmitting energy to Earth to using microwaves to investigating the effects of radiation on materials.
“Among the research on board this mission is a NASA experiment that aims to find ways to sustain astronauts on future deep-space missions,” CNN writes. “Called Seeds-2, it will ‘expose plant seeds to the harsh radiation environment of long-duration spaceflight’ and build on research carried out on previous X-37B missions.” Learning to grow food in soilless space environments is crucial for lengthy missions where fresh supplies are difficult to deliver.
“The Pentagon has not said how high the spaceplane will fly this time out,” notes Reuters. “But in a statement last month, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office said the mission … would involve tests of ‘new orbital regimes, experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies.’”
Industry analysts and amateur space trackers have made comments suggesting that the X-37B spacecraft might be headed for a highly elliptical orbit around Earth or even a trajectory that could take it near the moon. The Pentagon has shown a growing interest in this region of space. “Maybe this thing’s going go out toward the moon and drop off a payload,” said Bob Hall, director of space traffic monitoring firm COMSPOC, who analyzes the trajectories of orbital objects.
Shrouded in secrecy, X-37B is playing a key role in the Pentagon’s space missions and opening the door to future space exploration. Although this launch promises to take it further than ever, unknowns about its true capabilities persist, adding an aura of mystery to this top-secret Pentagon space project.
It is unknown how long OTV-7 will last but, historically, each new mission lasts longer than any previous mission.
It isn’t known how long China’s Shenlong mission will last, either. But, according to Reuters, it will operate in orbit for “a period of time” before returning to a designated landing site in China. During its flight, reusable technologies will be “verified” and space experiments conducted. This is the third time Shenlong has been launched and its success is vital to China which considers the development of reusable spacecraft critical to eventually attaining the goals of increasing the frequency and lowering per-mission costs of spaceflight.
The timing of the two launches came as no surprise to Space Force General B. Chance Saltzman, who added, “It's no surprise that the Chinese are extremely interested in our spaceplane. Because it is a capability; the ability to put something in orbit, do some things, and bring it home and take a look at the results is powerful. And so, these are two of the most watched objects in orbit while they’re in orbit. It’s no coincidence that they’re trying to match us in timing and sequence of this.”
Trouble With China
One of Shenlong’s secrets may have been revealed after amateur trackers claimed it had released six objects into orbit – some of which were emitting signals – four days after launch reports Space.com. “The six mystery objects have been designated OBJECT A, B, C, D, E, and F. According to satellite tracker and amateur astronomer Scott Tilley, OBJECT A appears to be emitting signals reminiscent of those emitted by objects that China’s space plane has released on previous missions.”
“OBJECT A’s or nearby emission is reminiscent of earlier Chinese space plane ‘wingman’ emissions in the sense the signal is modulated with a limited amount of data,” Tilley told Space.com via email. “There is speculation that the emission from OBJECT A may be from an object close to it, but this is speculation not based on any evidence I'm aware of.”
It has been noticed that OBJECT D and E are emitting signals without any accompanying data. These signals are being considered as idle “placeholder” signals. However, it is important to note that these are very occasional and do not stay on for long periods. It has taken several days of observations and tracking passes with dish antennas to gather this data. It is worth mentioning that these observations are different from the ones made during China’s first two spaceplane missions.
“In summary, this iteration of the Chinese space plane mission launched into a similar orbit as the last two but operationally it is exhibiting different radio behavior than before. The additional observations of the emissions from OBJECT D and E are new but could also have been missed on earlier missions if they too were intermittent,” Tilley added. “Something we should watch for is close encounters between OBJECT A and OBJECTs D and E. D and E are in fairly elliptical orbits while A is in a near-circular orbit. In the next couple of days, there will be close approaches between these objects at perigee.”
“There’s a deadly war game unfolding above our heads right now with … spaceplanes which can interfere with low orbit satellites,” writes Cosmos. This has led Australian company LeoLabs to use its 10-radar global network to track the trajectories of Shenlong and, on occasion, X-37B.
“We can see what’s happening in LEO because that’s where radar is dominant,” managing director of LeoLabs Australia Terry van Haren explains. “Our radars are here to catch the big picture. We’re not just tracking the space planes, but also everything else in LEO that flies over this area. It’s very high volume, low latency, precision tracking information.”
But Shenlong is attracting attention because of the secrecy surrounding its missions and its potential for espionage and space combat. “This year is going to be a very interesting year in space as it is on Earth,” says van Haren.
Do Spaceplanes Equal Space Warfare?
As tensions between China and its neighboring countries continue to escalate, access to space will become increasingly valuable but also vulnerable.
“Space warfare is like a chess game,” van Haren says. “You deploy your pawns – small satellites – first. You put them in strategically important positions. And you leave them there until they’re needed. That’s happening as we speak. And in all orbits.”
Spaceplanes, says van Haren, have upped the ante. “I would say a space plane is a knight, or bishop – or a castle,” he adds. “Something that can move across the whole board very quickly and potentially do a lot of damage.”
Spaceplanes offer versatile capabilities, carrying any payload and easily shifting between orbits to approach other spacecraft. “You no longer have to be co-orbital (launched into the same orbit) to be a potential threat,” van Haren explains.
But the fallout of space combat – as with civilian and corporate carelessness – could be devastating, Cosmos writes. “The fact is we’re talking about a global commons, a precious resource. It’s something that can never be divided between civil, commercial, and military operations,” says van Haren. “If things all go pear-shaped due to safety problems or conflict, the simple fact is every human on Earth will be affected.
“You wouldn’t be able to rely on your space-based systems (GPS, internet banking, etc.) being there every day. It can be taken away in a heartbeat.
“And we’re not talking about losing access for weeks, months, or years – as with the temporary shipping crisis in the Gulf of Aden. We’re talking decades, potentially tens of decades, for the higher orbits. So, our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, can be affected by the things going on today.”