A Dutch Skywatcher achieved a rare achievement in late June and early July 2019. With a 10-inch telescope equipped with a camera, Ralf Vandebergh photographed the mysterious spacecraft X-37B of the US Air Force in the middle of the mission to 210 miles above the surface.
"We can spot a piece of the nose, payload, and stern of this mini-shuttle, even with a hint of minor details," Vandebergh told Space.com.
Vandebergh had been looking for the robot spacecraft for months and finally managed to track it down in May 2019, according to Space.com reporter Leonard David. However, it took a few more weeks for the approximately ten-meter long robot shuttle to actually be photographed.
"When I tried to observe it again in the middle of June [in] it did not correspond to the predicted time and the predicted way." Vandebergh told David. "It turned out to be in a different orbit, and thanks to the Amateur Satellite Observer Network, it was quickly put back into orbit and I was able to take some pictures on June 30 and July 2 ."
Boeing built at least two X-37Bs for the Luftwaffe in the mid-2000s. The cost was around $ 1 billion apiece. While a miniature version of NASA's Space Shuttle, decommissioned in 2011, the X-37B is essentially a small, reusable and maneuverable satellite with a shorter mission-to-mission lifetime compared to disposable satellites ,
Air Force describes the X-37B as an "Orbital Test Vehicle" or OTV.
The X-37B launched its first mission in April 2010 with a United Launch Alliance Atlas rocket. Where many satellites can be deployed for up to a decade in orbit, the X-37B's longest mission in early 2018 was its fourth. It took 717 days.
The X-37B photographed by Vandebergh started in September 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon rocket. Each mission of the X-37B allegedly costs around 200 million US dollars.
The current mission is the fifth of the X-37B. On the X-37B Vandebergh is a so-called Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, which was built by the Air Force Research Laboratory.
According to the Air Force, the spreader will help test "experimental electronics and oscillating heat-pipe technologies in the air long-life space environment. "The X-37B, with its ever-expanding missions, is driving demand for spacecraft components in the US that can survive for years in orbit.
"The fifth OTV mission further enhances the performance and flexibility of the X-37B as a space technology demonstrator and host platform for experimental payloads," said the Air Force To refine the operation of the X-37B Mission may set a new record for this guy. "It sips power and fuel like a Prius," said a government insider who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In the past, the Air Force was not sure which payloads the X-37B was putting into orbit – and this fueled far-reaching speculation from space experts. "They can put sensors there, there satellites," said Eric Sterner of the George C. Marshall Institute in Virginia on the X-37B. "You could put some ammunition there, provided it exists."
The Air Force denies that the X-37B has ever carried weapons. Over-arming a spacecraft would be a violation of the 1967 Space Treaty.
By imposing its own military department on space operations and promising a new generation of orbital systems, including missile defense, US President Donald Trump's government could challenge the decades-old ban on space-based weapons.  However, it would be perfectly legal, and not surprising, for the X-37B to function as a kind of reusable spy satellite, without jeopardizing other scientific missions.
In fact, the Air Force acknowledged that testing the heat spreader is not the only current task of the X-37B. The reusable spacecraft is also pioneering new orbits of the type.
"The fifth OTV mission will also be launched into and deployed in a higher-pitched orbit than previous missions to further expand the X-37B's orbit." Air Force explains.
The orbit of a spacecraft corresponds to the highest north-south latitude over which it travels. According to Brian Weeden, a space exploration expert at the Secure World Foundation in Colorado, the X-37B previously flew between 37 and 43 degrees.
The extension of the tilt of the X-37B expands "what he can gather information about, provided this is his mission," said Weeden to The Daily Beast. It is worth noting that almost all of Russia north of the former slope of the X-37B.
The fifth and most recent mission of the X-37B could send the Mini-Shuttle for the first time across much of Russia's territory.
David Ax acts as Defense Editor of National Interest. He is the author of the Graphic Novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.