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908 Days in Space: Why China and Russia Fear the X-37B Space Plane

X-37B
X-37B. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

X-37B Space Plane Returns In a Record-setting Triumph: When it first went to orbit, it was the property of the U.S. Air Force, then when it landed, it was owned by U.S. Space Force. That’s how long the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 spent conducting its last mission.

Times have changed since it first went up 908 days ago. The X-37B record-setting robotic space plane was in orbit for around 2.5 years. Now, we are learning more about what that craft was doing in space for so long.

X-37B: Full of Significant Experimental Data

The unmanned X-37B returned to earth at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 12. While some observers, including those in China, believe the X-37B was on some kind of military reconnaissance or even “bombing” mission, it appears the reusable space plane was focused on civilian scientific research. It is possible that there could have been some experiments of a military nature, but that remains classified and hidden from public view.

Could Crops Someday Grow on Other Planets?

The craft first investigated space and radiation effects on plant seeds. These early data acquisition efforts are a large step forward in obtaining insights into potentially growing crops on other planets.

Unleash the Potential of Solar Power from Space

The X-37B also aimed to evaluate how well spacecraft can collect solar power and send it back to earth via radio frequency microwaves. This effort is called the Photovoltaic Radiofrequency Antenna Module. This could better unmanned power flight someday.

Can Generation Z Air Force Cadets Launch Their Own Satellite?

The X-37B even deployed a satellite fashioned by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy called the FalconSat-8. This had five distinct tests, including a “plasma thruster, a metamaterials antenna, a carbon nanotubes experiment, and an energy surge and control device,” according to an Air Force Academy Foundation news release.

Service Module Enables Better Research

The X-37B had a “ring-shaped service module” fastened to the vehicle’s rear. This was believed to hold the scientific payload. The primary payload module is about the size of a pickup truck bed. This module is similar to what the Space Shuttle deployed.

The folks over at The Warzone speculated that the X-37B’s service module also takes after the Air Force Research Laboratory’s EAGLE “ring-shaped payload adapter.” This module can be maneuvered in space after it has jettisoned, and it can handle “six fixed or deployable payloads.”

NASA Is Another Partner of the X-37B Program

This last X-37B mission carried the largest payload in history. It also contained experiments for NASA, including the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space, or METIS-2. This “tested thermal control coatings, printed electronic materials, and candidate radiation shielding materials,” according to an Air Force news release.

Let’s Get This Spaceplane Back in Orbit

Space Force is probably itching to get the X-37B filled with experiments and launch it back into orbit again. This will be a feather in the cap of the new military service branch. It shows that Space Force, the Air Force, the Air Force Academy, and NASA can work together across bureaucracies for common goals. This whole of government approach will be important going forward as the American objectives for space run the gamut from working on moon missions, lengthening stays at the International Space Station, improving space telescopes, and pondering voyages to Mars.

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The U.S. Airforce’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 after landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., May 7, 2017. U.S. Air Force/Handout.

The X-37B’s success could also spawn other larger unmanned reusable space planes that could have bigger payloads. This could usher in a new era for space research. The X-37B cannot get back into space fast enough. The program sets records every time it flies, so the reusable spaceplane has a full and fruitful life ahead of it.

X-37B Photo Essay

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X-37B. Image Credit: NASA YouTube/Screenshot.

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The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the Air Force’s unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. (PDT) June 16. OTV-2, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., March 5, 2011, conducted on-orbit experiments 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)

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X-37B. Image Credit: NASA.

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The U.S. Airforce’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 after landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., May 7, 2017. U.S. Air Force/Handout.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New 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.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. 403Forbidden

    November 16, 2022 at 5:16 pm

    USA has revealed to whole world the next frontier, or the next battle field or the coming latest war domain is in space, S-P-A-C-E, the region normally called LEO right just above the Earth’s atmosphere.

    It has flown the X-37B round and round and round the planet like a hungry hound circling a potential meal or prey.

    USA has already set up activity groups within the ‘Space Force’ to begin preparations for turning space into the next arena for great power confrontation.

    Thus USA is not a force for peace, but a force dedicated to confrontation & conflict.

    It has (in Aug 1945) taught humanity the winning formula for use in global confrontations & conflicts.

    Winning formula – use nukes when your victim is down on his knees.

    USA clearly teaches humanity all the wrong things in life.

  2. Vera Hatton

    December 4, 2022 at 11:37 am

    Troll…..So much wrong with all your remarks. Its Russia and China who blow up satellites and fill space with deadly space junk. Its Russia and China who threaten and even invade their neighbors for no reason other than power projection and the big egos of their dictator rulers.
    USA gives more disaster relief and assistance to others than any other country.
    As for Japan being “on their knees” clearly you have no knowledge of history and how the Japanese military had prepared to fight to the very last man, woman and child. Their plan was to bleed the Allies so badly that they would agree to an armistice rather than a surrender. This way Japan could keep her army and navy, not allow an occupation and then they could rebuild and, in a few years, start another war, just as Germany had done after WW1.
    Ignorant people who don’t know history might fall for your lies but the facts show your version is clearly slanted and full of lies. In fact, it looks like typical Russian propaganda written by another Russian paid troll.

  3. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    December 4, 2022 at 11:53 am

    403Forbidden, our resident Russian troll, has again weighed in with his usual paranoid anti-US drivel.
    With evil and brutal dictatorships such as China and Russia, the US must constantly be vigilant in innovating to protect itself and its allies everywhere, and obviously, that includes space.

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