Drones continue to increase in popularity, filling our skies with unmanned aerial vehicles. The military, the police, media outlets, and tourists all use drones now. But the increased drone traffic isn’t limited to our skies. There’s notably more drone activity in space too.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is testing its Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), an unmanned spaceplane resembling a mini-space shuttle. According to the ESA, this test vehicle is being used to develop and flight-test “the technologies and critical systems for Europe’s future autonomous controlled reentry for return missions from low Earth orbit.”
The first test flight of the IXV took place on February 11, 2015, and is heralded as a tremendous success for the ESA. “IXV has opened a new chapter for ESA in terms of reentry capabilities and reusability,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA Director General. “ESA and its Member States, together with European space industry, are now ready to take up new challenges in several fields of space transportation, in future launchers, robotic exploration or human spaceflight.”
Robotic space exploration is far more feasible at the moment than manned space missions. So, if the ESA and its unmanned spacecraft are, in fact, working towards developing better technology to improve space exploration, that’s really exciting.
But not everyone has faith that government spaceplanes are being utilized for laudable motives, and with good reason.
The United States Air Force’s unmanned X-37b spaceplane is shrouded in secrecy, and, therefore, conspiracy. Three test flights have been conducted, with more on the way. During the most recent flight, the X-37b remained in space for nearly two years.
What the hell was it doing is space for nearly two years?
The real answer is: nobody really knows! And that’s kind of terrifying. As with the IXV, the official word is that this air force spaceplane is simply testing vehicle capabilities. But all of the X-37b test flights that have taken place have launched with classified payloads and classified mission details. Some believe this secretive spaceplane could be conducting spy activities, while others firmly believe the craft is deploying space-based weapons.
The ESA is already working on its next robot spaceplane called Pride—Programme for Reusable In-Orbit Demonstrator for Europe. The BBC points out that this new spaceplane “looks very similar in design to the X-37B.”
Awesome. We can look forward to even more spaceplanes deploying space-based weapons controlled by more governments. That is, of course, until Skynet takes over. Then robots will control these planes and the space weapons. But, frankly, I trust robots with weapons more than I trust humans. So maybe this impending robot-dominated world won’t be so bad.