What if I told you there is not only a U.S. space plane orbiting the earth but that it has been in orbit for over two years? The X-37B robotic spacecraft has set a new record for duration. It has been circling the earth for 781 days as of July 7. This is the sixth mission for the unmanned reusable vehicle that specializes in scientific research. The U.S. Space Force is now leading the mission known as the Orbital Test Vehicle-6, which began on May 17, 2020.
Time to Take a Victory Lap
Boeing Space took to Twitter on July 7 to herald the flight. “781 days and counting! The world’s only reusable spaceplane, #X37B, has set another endurance record — as it has on every mission since it first launched 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. It 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 has barely been forthcoming about various experiments being conducted on X-37B.
Uninterrupted Solar Power Experiment
The main scientific effort is the spacecraft’s evaluation of a solar project that turns unreflected sunlight from space into radio frequency microwave energy that could be collected on earth. The Photovoltaic Radiofrequency Antenna Module Flight Experiment (PRAM-FX), is in its early stages, but if it shows promise, it could someday be part of a constellation of satellites that converts a gargantuan amount of sunlight to make uninterrupted electrical power.
Officer Cadets Are Involved
A Russian Defense Contractor Says the Spacecraft Can Deliver Nuclear Bombs
There has been some chatter from Russia that the X-37B has a serious military application – namely dropping nuclear devices from space. Yan Novikov, the director of Russia’s state-owned Almaz-Antey defense company dropped the accusation at a conference in 2021. Novikov said the X-37B’s scientific mission is a smokescreen and that the craft actually spies on Russia and will target the country with the three nuclear weapons it has on board. Kyle Mizokami, writing for Popular Mechanics, threw cold water on these accusations, asserting that the X-37B could not be a nuclear bomber.
The Program Is Secretive
But the Space Force has kept some public viewing embargoed since it launched in 2020. There was an initial live video of that launch, but then the feed was cut off to maintain secrecy.
United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno told Defense News: “It’s a classified mission, and what is classified about it is the details of the vehicle itself, the mission it will do on orbit and where it will do that,” he said. “Therefore, we have to stop the live broadcast so that we do not make it easy for adversaries to figure those things out by having that much data about the flight and deployment.”
Potential Spying on Russia and China
You can bet Space Force will continue keeping the military side of things under wraps. Dropping of nuclear bombs is far-fetched but it is plausible the X-37B has some means to spy on Russia and China – perhaps with secret Cube Sat (nanosatellites) devices. What it could do for reconnaissance beyond what satellites already conduct when surveilling is not clear, but a spacecraft that can stay up for two years and then land whenever it wants has some military value.
We’ll keep an eye on X-37B because it is such an interesting and tantalizing program. The solar experiment has obvious value, and it is encouraging Space Force is allowing Air Force Academy cadets to design their own satellites. The success of the X-37B has ample 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 U.S. adversaries wondering what it’s up to in space.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.