Droning into the Unknown
Earlier this year, a drone used by the U.S. Air Force returned from space after having spent 14 months in orbit around the earth. The mission has been cloaked in secrecy by the Pentagon. While officials have stated that the reason for the launch was to test new technologies – not weapons – for a space shuttle, the clandestine nature of the mission has some industry analysts theorizing that “the X-37B could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling foreign satellites as it circles the globe.”
Drones have a unique capacity for information gathering that could be essential to the exploration – or exploitation – of space. The potential for more nefarious uses is certainly there, and that is what concerns other nations. The launch of the first drone into space in 2010 by the U.S. prompted talk of an arms race in space. China called the U.S. a hypocrite, saying that "As a superpower, the U.S. has been calling for nuclear disarmament all these years and urged other countries to be more responsible for world peace and safety … But in the meantime, its development of the space plane may lead to an arms race in space." Russia is also keeping a wary eye on America’s tests and is promising to develop their own unmanned space plane.
Not much is known about the development of drones for space, but the recently returned X-37B is about 29 feet long, with “stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet tip to tip. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels.” This particular plane was designed to be in orbit for 270 days, but remained in space for 469 days, demonstrating definite potential for extended missions. The price tag on the development of the plane is high and details regarding its time in space have not been released, but the program has proved that drones can operate in space successfully.
Drone technology is emerging everywhere. Unmanned systems are being used in homes, to provide traffic reports and facilitate emergency services. They may eventually be used by NGOs to deliver aid. We know that drones may revolutionize warfare and the way we live our lives on earth, but they may also be the key to pushing the boundaries of our knowledge of the final frontier.