The U.S. Air Force's X-37B pilotless space plane was in orbit eleven of the thirteen months before infamous terrorist Osama Bin Laden's death. The U.S. likely spent over a billion dollars to build a pair of X-37Bs and put them in orbit during this time period.  (Source: EPA)

Many reports indicated that the craft's purpose was intelligence gathering.  (Source: EPA)

The U.S. military and intelligence community has extensively used Low Earth Orbit spy satellites in imaging targets in the Middle East. These images were taken by satellite in 2002, and helped justify the invasion of Iraq.

The X-37B shuttles would have the advantage of greater mobility and a shorter time in orbit, version conventional spy satellites.  (Source: EPA)

Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals inside a private residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1.  (Source: The Long War Journal)
While technically feasible, we may never know whether the U.S. used these pricey tech toys for surveillance

In light of the UK newspaper Guardian's claims that the U.S. orchestrated an elaborate staged vaccination campaign to secretly collect the DNA of Osama Bin Laden's family members to verify his identity, one wonders what other lengths the U.S. government may have gone to in order to catch this terrorist who eluded the U.S. for nearly 10 years after the attacks of September 11.  We already know that it used top-secret modified Black Hawk helicopters to avoid detection.  So what other high tech devices might the U.S. military and intelligence community have deployed to aid the raid?

I. Background Information

When speaking recently with a science-minded professional colleague, they raised the idea that the X-37B autonomous space plane could have been used to spy in Bin Laden.  We found this idea fascinating so we wanted to dig into it further.

If you're a bit lost right now, here's the basics.  In April 2010 the U.S. used an Atlas V rocket to launch a mini space shuttle designed by The Boeing Comp. (BA).  This shuttle contained no human pilot -- it was navigated by robotic brains, based on commands by ground operators.  Between April and November the X-37B orbitted the Earth in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), before successfully reentering the atmosphere and landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

A second X-37B was constructed in 2010.  This vehicle was launched in March 2011 and presumably is still in orbit.

One pressing question on the minds of many is why the U.S. government gave the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and later the U.S. Air Force (USAF) the hundreds of millions in funding necessary to build the device.  The Atlas V launches alone likely cost around $200M USD combined [source].

The U.S. Air Force has asserted that the vehicle was being used to test new technologies, such as avionics, navigation, and small-scale atmospheric reentry insulation.  However, the program likely cost the government over $1B USD, so it's natural to wonder what justified that cost, particularly at a time NASA's budget was being cut.  And the highly-classified nature of the X-37B construction and launch only added to the speculation.

Tom Burghardt of Space Daily suggested that the vehicle could be used as a mobile spy satellite.  Air Force Deputy Undersecretary of Space Programs, Gary Payton, explicitly denied that the craft was carrying weapons, stating, "I don't know how this could be called a weaponization of space. Fundamentally, it's just an updated version of the space shuttle kinds of activities in space."

But he never said whether it might be carrying the kind of imaging equipment necessary for surveillance.

II. Could the X-37B Have Imaged the Bin Laden Compound?

Turning to the possibility of surveillance of the Bin Laden compound, it's important to consider the timeframe of events.  Osama Bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011 at a compound in a residential district outside of Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Over the last thirteen months, the USAF had an X-37B orbiter overhead for eleven of them.

And amateur astronomers observed the orbiter following variable paths that took it between 40 north and 40 south degrees of latitude, a swath that includes Pakistan.  Specifically, between September and October, observations logged on the site Heavens Above show the craft switching from north climbing orbit relative central Africa to a south dropping orbit.  During this switch it is likely that the craft's orbit crossed over Pakistan, though there was a gap in observations, making it hard to definitively say.

We contacted several aviation and defense analysts, but we were only able to get one to speak on record about the possibility.  He acknowledge that while it was purely speculative, that such an approach could have given certain benefits in terms of obfuscating the surveillance.

Marco Caceres of the Teal Group Corp. describes, "The X-37B is a an advanced technology demonstrator. The onboard technologies focus on such systems as avionics, guidance, navigation and control, structure materials, autonomous flight, reusable insulation, etc. In other words... those systems that would be critical to the development of a future reusable launch vehicle or "spaceplane"."

"While it is entirely possible that the X-37B might have carried some sort of camera or imaging system that might have been used by the US military for the purposes you suggest, there is no evidence of this... and thus any suggestions that this might have occurred would be strictly speculative."

During our conversation Mr. Caceres suggested that one potential advantage of such a use would be that unlike spy satellites it could be more mobile and would only be in orbit a short time, making it harder to spot. In theory, those factors could serve to reduce the likelihood that the Pakistani military or other sources might detect the orbiter and tip off Bin Laden that he might be under surveillance.

We reached out to Boeing for comment, but have not yet heard back from them.

At the end of the day, the conclusion to draw here is that while it is very feasible that the X-37B's high price was justified by delivering vital surveillance of the Bin Laden compound, there's no evidence to prove that to be the case.  At the end of the day the U.S. public will likely never know whether the X-37B was merely a research craft, or whether it led a double life as a terrorist-busting super spy.

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