Mystery in the Sky: The Secret World of Space Planes

X-37. Image – NASA

The Chinese Shenlong Space Plane and the American X-37B have been in the news lately. China recently launched its Shenlong and the X-37B should be launching shortly. Both of these spacecraft are highly classified along with their missions. With all this secrecy, are there any assumptions that can be made?

For both spacecraft, these are recent missions not their first. Shenlong has been getting in the press since its launch as it has “released” six objects. Released might be an assumption, some of the objects might be a spent upper stage of a CZ-2F rocket and others might be debris. These objects seem to emit signals; however, to what end is unclear. The signals appear to strengthen over North America.

In light of the recent Chinese ballon situation over North America, it cannot be ruled out that Shenlong is gathering some intelligence over the United States and Canada. X-37B, although also a classified craft, appears to have more experimental purposes rather than gathering intelligence. According to the U.S. Space Force regarding X-37B, “The previous missions have successfully experimented with Naval Research Laboratory technology designed to harness solar energy and transmit power to the ground; tested the effects of long-duration space exposure to organic materials for NASA; and provided an opportunity to launch a spacecraft designed and operated by cadets at U.S. Air Force Academy.” Even with this statement, X-37B operations continue to be highly secretive.

Speculation has always swirled around both spaceplanes. Their highly classified nature spawns this sort of educated guessing. The fact that objects seem to be emitting signals near Shenlong does lend itself to some intelligence gathering operation. Whether the target is North America or even other satellites is unclear. Both spacecraft spend long periods in Space, Shenlong’s mission could evolve over that time but again speculation reigns supreme.

About Carter Palmer

Carter Palmer has long held a keen interest in military matters and aviation. As a FI's space systems analyst he is responsible for updating the reports and analyses within the Space Systems Forecast – Launch Vehicles & Manned Platforms and Space Systems Forecast – Satellites & Spacecraft products.

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