X-37B: The mysterious space plane built for a war with Russia or China?

X-37B – The American space plane leaves observers guessing: At first glance, you’d think you’re looking at a miniature version of the space shuttle, but the X-37B is an unmanned, autonomous spaceplane with its own quirks and characteristics. The craft is also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle and it has performed six missions since 2010. At just 29 feet long, the X-37B is only a fraction of the size of the Space Shuttle. It is also propelled into space on a rocket and lands horizontally like an airplane. Let’s see why the United States needs such a curious spacecraft.

What is he doing in space?

Most missions and their details are classified. Could it be used to take out enemy satellites? This question has been raised by analysts of space warfare. But the US military denies such offensive activities and says the X-37B is for peaceful purposes as a technological and scientific test bed. For example, he could try out new technologies for spy satellites and other types of orbiting vehicles. The X-37B could also collect data on vertical launch mechanisms for flight control and test other space components.

Some mission details emerge

The US government has allowed certain features of the mission to be in the public domain. Before it was handed over to the Space Force, the Air Force in 2020 described an assortment of activities the X-37B engages in. This list is impressive, even if the payload of the machine is low.

It studies “advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, reusable conformal insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems , advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing”.

That makes the X-37B a valuable spacecraft, so look for more missions and longer orbits for the 9.5-foot-tall vehicle. It will likely continue to launch on the Atlas V (501) and SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

X-37B: Program History

The X-37 began its journey to production in 1999, and NASA oversaw the project. Then it was transferred to the secret military think tank Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004. Boeing was also a partner and the defense contractor is said to have built two X-37Bs. The Air Force served as the program coordinator, and then the X-37B became the property of the US Space Force.

What’s remarkable about the little craft is that it stays in orbit (between 150 and 500 miles above the earth) for a surprisingly long time. A mission lasted 718 days in 2017. Then a fifth mission completed 780 days in space.

US rivals are driven ‘crazy’

American rivals such as China and Russia are puzzled as to what the X-37B could do in the skies. In 2019, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said at the Aspen Security Forum that she might alter her orbit. “Our adversaries don’t know (its orbit) – and it’s happening on the other side of our adversaries’ Earth – where it’s going to get next. And we know it’s driving them crazy. And I’m really happy about that. »

Each X-37B mission costs about $200 million. That’s not a bad price considering it stays in orbit for so long, is reusable and unmanned, and performs such vital testing and experimentation. So let China and Russia think it depends on military missions like carrying killer satellite munitions. The US Space Force is pleased to operate it as a science and technology demonstrator for research and development that helps other space missions succeed.

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.