The X-37B is a US Space Force spaceplane with an intriguing array of features and missions.
Unlike the colossal size of NASA’s famous space shuttle, the X-37B is only 29 feet long and has a wingspan of 15 feet. This means that two X-37Bs can fit comfortably in the shuttle’s spacious cargo hold. To date, the X-37B has been launched into orbit on two different boosters – United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Like the space shuttle, the X-37B lands on a runway like an airplane and does everything autonomously, with no crew on board.
The Space Force does not disclose information about the payload, equipment, and orbital activity of the X-37B. This ambiguity gives rise to speculation about its potential as a space weapon. This assumption is rejected by military officials. Or the space plane serves to test developing spacecraft technologies and participate in various space experiments, including the evaluation of sensors for future reconnaissance satellites.
Embodying bureaucratic complexity, each flight has a dual designation – an OTV version and a “US” version. For example, OTV-1 is also known as USA-212. In addition, OTV-6 has the designation USSF-7 in the realm of the newly created Space Force. Simplicity is maintained, however, by adopting the mission name “OTV”.
It has been a NASA program since 1999. The X-37 program then embarked on an innovation trajectory. Initially conceived as an approach test vehicle (ALTV) and orbiter (OV), it was redesigned in 2004 under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This transition led to his classification. The Air Force subsequently adopted a program that resulted in the X-37B, designed from the original OV blueprint. Boeing has been the prime contractor for the X-37B program since its inception in 1999. To date, two X-37B spaceplanes have been built for the US military. It is noted that two different machines participated in six space missions of the program. These machines were transferred to the US Space Force, which was officially created in December 2019.
The hallmark of the X-37B is its exceptional endurance. Designed for missions of “270 days or more”, it consistently exceeds expectations. With missions lasting 469, 674, 718, and even 780 days, the endurance of the space plane is beyond the limits of the previous limits. Maybe technologies for long flights are being tested?
X-37B’s exact orbit remains classified, but amateur astronomers have turned their eyes to the sky to track its trajectory. With resources like the Space.com satellite tracker, curious minds can catch a glimpse of this enigmatic ship.
Using solar power, the X-37B replicates conventional satellites by using sunlight to generate electricity. Gallium arsenide solar panels are deployed from the ship’s payload bay in post-orbital orbit.
The modest size and multiple secret long missions of this space plane pique my curiosity. I will look for it.