Astrophotographer and journalist Ralf Vandebergh has captured an image of the United States Air Force X-37B spaceplane orbiting Earth. The diminutive shuttle-like spaceplane was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 in September 2017 and has since spent more than 650 days in orbit conducting its classified mission.
In a July 2 post revealing the image, Vandebergh explains that he had first spotted the X-37B in May. However, when he tried to capture images of it in mid-June, the spaceplane could not be found on the predicted orbital path.
With the help of the amateur satellite observer-network, the spaceplane was found to have maneuvered into another orbit. With its position now known, Vandebergh managed to capture images of the X-37B on June 30 and July 2.
The raw image of the X-37B captured by Vandebergh shows nothing more than a grey and white smudge on a pitch black background. However, once the image was processed and a rendering of the X-37B inserted to act as a reference, the tail, body, and nose of the spaceplane become clear. Additionally, the image also appears to show the spaceplane’s payload bay doors open.
The current X-37B mission is the fifth (OTV-5) since the first (OTV-1) was launched aboard an Atlas V in April 2010. Each mission has been progressively longer than the last with OTV-1 lasting 224 days and the fourth mission (OTV-4), 717 days. As a result, it is likely that the current mission will continue for two to three hundred more days.