Space plane or weapon? The X-37B just spent more than 800 days in space

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Last month, the Boeing-designed X-37B orbital test vehicle surpassed 800 days in space, eclipsing its previous endurance record. This feat was marked by the US Space Force’s Space Delta 9, which operates the 3rd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle of the Space Experimentation Squadron. Designed as part of a pilot test program to showcase technologies for reusable unmanned space testing, the X-37B remains one of the most unique aircraft in the US arsenal. The US Air Force has already flown five X-37B missions, OTV-1 through OTV-5. The platform was most recently launched into Earth orbit in May 2020 on its sixth mission for the program, OTV-6.

Boeing Integrated Defense Systems was selected by NASA in the late 1990s to design and produce an orbital vehicle. The company’s advanced prototyping arm, Phantom Works, was tasked with this task. Originally founded by McDonnell Douglass, this branch continued to operate within Boeing and was instrumental in earlier projects including the “Bird of Prey” and the X-32 Joint Strike Fighter. Within four years, about $192 million was spent on the X-37B project. In 2002, NASA’s new Space Launch Initiative framework awarded an additional $300 million contract to Boeing to partially fund the project.

Since the details of the X-37B are classified, only basic facts are publicly available. The spaceplane is about 29 feet long and 9.5 feet tall with a wingspan of about 15 feet. As detailed in a previous 19FortyFive article, “The X-37B lifts off vertically from a space launch pad and is powered by the Atlas V or SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. Once in orbit, it has an internal power supply that can easily last more than 1 to 2 years. It can also maneuver on its own, and it eventually lands on a runway back to Earth, just like the shuttle or a conventional aircraft. Boeing claims that the spaceplane operates in low orbit at a altitude between 150 and 500 miles above Earth According to Boeing, the X-37B operates in low Earth orbit at an altitude between 150 and 500 miles (240 to 805 kilometers) above Earth.

While most of the information surrounding the robotic spaceplane is being kept under wraps, several of its onboard experiences were leaked before launch. The US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is conducting an experiment called the Photovoltaic Radio Frequency Antenna Module (PRAM), which studies the transformation of solar energy into radio frequency microwave energy. Space Insider also reports that two NASA experiments were launched with the aircraft’s latest deployment to study “the effects of the space environment on a plate of material samples and seeds used to grow food.” Although more details have not been uncovered, the OTV-6 mission marks the first time the X-37B has used a service module to house experiments.

In 2020, the X-37B received the Collier Trophy for pushing “the boundaries of flight and space exploration,” according to the US Air Force. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, noted that “the sophisticated, unmanned X-37B advances reusable spaceplane technologies and operates in-space experiments that are returned for further consideration. deepened on earth”. The secrecy and intrigue surrounding the X-37B has led Moscow and Beijing to speculate about the platform’s true intentions. A recently updated report released by the Secure World Foundation denounced Russia’s and China’s claim that the X-37B is an offensive weapon as unfounded.

X-37B. Image credit: Boeing.

X-37B

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the Air Force’s reusable, unmanned space plane, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. (PDT) on June 16. OTV-2, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla., on March 5, 2011, conducted experiments in orbit for 469 days during its mission. The X-37B is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program performs risk reduction, experimentation, and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies. (photo credit: Boeing)

Despite rumors that equate the spacecraft with a weapon, the platform is widely believed to operate exactly as the US Air Force claims. Additionally, industry experts have stated that the X-37B is too small and not maneuverable enough to perform the tasks of an aircraft capable of carrying munitions.

Maya Carlin is the Middle East Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst at the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has lines in numerous publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel.

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