Something curious happened earlier this month: the National Reconnaissance Office donated two perfectly-good satellite frames to NASA. They’re still sitting on the ground and they have no instruments, but apparently our spy satellite agency has no forseeable need for them. Not that the NRO cares, but NASA has neither the need for them nor the budget to do anything with them. They’re probably going to sit around in a NASA warehouse for a good long time. Why doesn’t the NRO just keep them around and then fit them with instruments and launch them as budgets permit or circumstances necessitate?
Now, I’m no spook and I have no insider knowledge but I believe the answer lies in the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. This is the unmanned mini-shuttle that’s currently in orbit on a year-long test mission, and is scheduled to return this month. Insofar as we can tell – not that anyone’s talking – the program seems to have been a success.
Current spy satellite design has some inherent drawbacks. Once launched, they will hopefully serve for a decade or more, which is a bit of a mixed blessing. The longer they continue to operate the older and more outdated their instrument set becomes. Instrument performance tends to degrade, and the technology remains a relic of the age in which it was designed. A satellite which has served for a dozen years probably has instruments that are fifteen years old, based on technology which is perhaps twenty years out of date.
Servicing missions were never practical; now that the shuttle fleet has been retired a servicing mission is entirely out of the question. What the NRO is doing amounts to a paradigm shift: they’re going to build a mini-fleet of mini-shuttles, which can be fitted with a current-generation sensor payload and launched virtually on-demand. They’ll probably keep a handful up at all times, scheduled to come down after a year or so to be repaired, refueled, and upgraded.
There’s been a lot of people doing head-scratching and fearmongering over the X-37 program. Granted, it might have some uses as a weapons platform, but I believe the real advantages are in surveillance and espionage. IMHO, the X-37 is the test vehicle for a new generation of spy satellites, which will enable us to cycle out old technology for new on a comparatively rapid basis, while extending the lifetime of the platform itself by enabling us to repair and refuel it on each mission cycle.