The New York Times article on the X-37 contains two very weak assertions.
How about this one: “The craft’s payload bay is the size of a pickup truck bed, suggesting that it can not only expose experiments to the void of outer space but also deploy and retrieve small satellites.” (emphasis added)
I guess you could assert that the shuttle has ‘retrieved’ a satellite regarding the repair missions with the Hubble. I also suppose you could assert the X-37 could do such a mission as a space debris mitigation effort–a demonstration possibly–but even if it had the energy to maneuver to a spacecraft to retrieve it, how would it get it in the cargo bay? How would the payload be secured for a return trip to earth, including an airplane-like landing?
The second assertion is the space weaponization thing. It seems kind of analogous to when people have to explain that they are actually politically correct when accused of a PC-type crime. Accordingly, the X-37 is associated with the phrase ‘space weaponization’ several times and it is denied several times. The Times Online article Launch of secret US space ship masks even more secret launch of new weapon is m-u-c-h more ominous. I’m all for conspiracy theories, but come on…
Really, the idea the X-37 is a space weapon is beyond the pale. First level questions like what weapon(s) does it carry?; what would be its target(s)?; how would the weapon(s) be delivered to the target(s)?, are ignored.
Regarding an X-37 payload, in the past the concept of ‘on-orbit spares’ has come up, but the idea was never compelling. After all, if you’re going to put something on orbit, it is probably a very capable system and you probably want to use it right away. As such, you’d be expected to turn the satellite on as soon as you can.
A vehicle like the X-37 could preserve a capability to deploy ‘sleeping’ contingency satellite(s) for an extended period of time. If there was war here on earth that needed the kind of space capabilities the X-37’s payload could provide, then it could deploy the satellites almost immediately. Conversely, if they didn’t need to be deployed, the X-37 could be brought back with the payload intact for use on a subsequent mission. Or they could be deployed just prior to the X-37’s de-orbit to add space capability.
Taking off and landing with the same payload–on a first mission–makes little sense. The X-37 first needs to show it can deploy a payload after some period of on-orbit storage. By the way, a payload that could fit into a pickup truck’s bed seems pretty likely to not have new sensors on it. You would really expect this would be about employing relatively mature technologies in new ways.