What if I told you that there is not only one American space plane orbiting the earth but it has been in orbit for over two years? The X-37B robotic spaceship a set a new record for the duration. Since July 7, it has circled the Earth for 781 days. This is the sixth mission of the reusable unmanned vehicle specialized in scientific research. The US space force now leads the mission known as Orbital-6 test vehiclewhich began on May 17, 2020.
It’s time to take a victory lap
Boeing Space took to Twitter on July 7 to announce the theft. “781 days and counting! The world’s only reusable spaceplane, #X37B, has set a new endurance record, as it has done on every mission since its launch in 2010.”
The X-37B borrows from the space shuttle
The X-37B can be described as a mini-version of the space shuttle – the emphasis here is on “mini”. The X-37B is only 29 feet long, 9.5 feet tall and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet. He takes off on a rocket and lands horizontally on an airstrip. Since it falls under Space Force control, the mission is nominally a military program. But Space Force was barely aware of the various experiments conducted on X-37B.
Uninterrupted solar power experience
The main science effort is the spacecraft’s evaluation of a solar project that transforms unreflected sunlight from space into radio frequency microwave energy that could be collected on earth. The Photovoltaic radio frequency antenna module flight experience (PRAM-FX), is in its infancy, but if it shows promise, it could one day be part of a constellation of satellites that convert a gargantuan amount of sunlight to generate uninterrupted electrical power.
Officer cadets are involved
Russian defense contractor says spacecraft can deliver nukes
There have been rumors from Russia that the X-37B has a serious military application, namely the dropping of nuclear devices from space. Yan Novikov, the director of the Russian defense company Almaz-Antey dropped the charge at a conference in 2021. Novikov said the X-37B’s science mission is a smokescreen and that the craft is actually spying on Russia and will target the country with the three nuclear weapons it has on board. Kyle Mizokami, written for Popular Mechanicsthrew cold water on these accusations, saying that the X-37B could not be a nuclear bomber.
The program is secret
But Space Force has maintained a public embargo on certain broadcasts since its launch in 2020. There was an early live video of that launch, but the feed was later cut to maintain secrecy.
Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance says Defense News“It’s a classified mission, and what’s classified about it are the details of the vehicle itself, the mission it will do in orbit and where it will do it,” he said. “Therefore, we have to stop the live broadcast so that we don’t make it easy for adversaries to figure these things out by having so much flight and deployment data.”
Potential espionage on Russia and China
You can bet Space Force will continue to keep the military side of things a secret. Dropping nukes is far-fetched, but it’s plausible that the X-37B has ways to spy on Russia and China – perhaps with a secret Cube Sat devices (nanosatellites). What it could do for reconnaissance beyond what satellites already do when monitoring is unclear, but a spacecraft that can stand for two years and then land when it wants has some value. military.
We’ll be keeping an eye out for X-37B because it’s such an interesting and enticing program. The solar experiment has obvious value, and it’s encouraging that Space Force is allowing Air Force Academy cadets to design their own satellites. The success of the X-37B has great public relations value for Space Force and it could be used as a recruiting tool for the new branch of the military. Meanwhile, the X-37B’s exploits are a good way to keep American adversaries from wondering what it’s doing in space.
Now as 1945 Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. EastwoodPhD, is the author of Humans, Machines and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an emerging threat expert and former US Army infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.