X-37B Space Plane - All You Need To Know

Kick-starting space exploration in the late 50s, the space race saw both Russia and America fixated on reaching the lunar surface. Gagarin was the first human to orbit the Earth in Russia’s Vostok 1 spacecraft in ’61; 8 years later with an evolution of space technology, Aldrin and Armstrong became the first humans to touch the lunar surface on the Apollo 11 mission.

Apollo 11 Mission Boot print on the moon.
Apollo 11 Mission - Bootprint on the Moon. Photo credit: NASA / Buzz Aldrin / Public domain

More recently the commercial enterprises of Space X saw Crew Dragon dock in Demo-2 to the International Space Station (ISS) commemorating the first time the US had launched to the ISS since 2011. A marked upgrade in space technology saw a fully autonomous rendezvous and docking of the Demo-2 to and from the ISS.

It’s this technological advancement in automations and reusable space technology that is fuelling the next progression of space exploration. Next, mission Artemis will take us back to the lunar surface to stay and help us make the giant leap towards the Red Planet. NASA’s Orion will pave the way for future exploration as commercial partners collaborate with government industries to advance reusable flight technology and develop intelligent automations. Perhaps the biggest progression in technology however still remains the largest  mystery.

Un-crewed missions on Boeing’s X-37B Space Plane have had millions of space experts guessing its purpose since its launch over a decade ago.

Boeing X-37B inside payload fairing before launch
Boeing X-37B inside payload fairing before launch. Photo credit: US Air Force / Public domain

X-37B Space Plane – What is it?

Much secrecy still surrounds the X-37B Space Plane. Built by Boeing, the X-37B military plane is an unmanned, reusable spacecraft with its first orbital mission launched in April 2010 by Space Force and owned by the U.S. Air Force.

The X37B launch sees the craft take off vertically and land horizontally. Whilst the U.S. Airforce have never formally commented on the capabilities of the craft which has to date flown six clandestine missions, what keen space observers do know is that the relatively small plane flies at low altitudes for extensive periods of time. In total the craft has spent 2,865 days in orbit, with its last flight being a record breaking 780 days.

Objective of X-37B

The X-37B Space Plane’s purpose is of course, still largely unknown to those that don’t have the correct security clearance. The U.S. Air Force have yet to confirm any exacting details about the craft, its missions, or capabilities, simply stating that the craft’s primary are twofold:

First to advance reusable spacecraft technology and second, conduct scientific experiments. The Air Force states that this “includes testing avionics, flight systems, guidance and navigation, thermal protection, insulation, propulsion, and re-entry systems.”

The technologies demonstrated in the X-37B include an improved thermal protection system, enhanced avionics, an autonomous guidance system and an advanced airframe.

Teaching the Air Force the value of re-usability and autonomy, the last mission was launched in May of this year with an upgrade to the service module to ‘add capacity for the experiments’. Revealing one of those missions to deliver solar power to the ground from space via radio frequency microwave energy, it’s thought that this experiment is related to the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR) program – a tech designed to provide power to military bases with limited access to energy sources.

The X-37B has also deployed payloads for NASA’s experiments looking into the effect of radiation in space on seeds used for food production.

X-37B: Military Space Plane

What is clear is that the X-37B plane has military applications. The SSPIDR Project has the objective to capture solar energy using highly efficient solar cells and beam that energy back to Earth wherever it is needed, like a military base without a traditional power supply.

Inevitably the theory that the X-37B can be used to test offensive technologies has been mooted. Some researchers believe that the craft has been used to deploy cubesats as part of a covert intelligence program.

Boeing X-37B after landing at Vandenberg AFB, 3 December 2010
Boeing X-37B after landing at Vandenberg AFB, 3 December 2010 Photo Credit: United States Air Force/Michael Stonecypher / Public domain

See the X-37B

Despite the craft being shrouded in secrecy, search for the X-37B and you’ll find no end of images of the craft, or X-37B launch videos (see embedded live coverage of the May launch below). X-37B space plane pictures can be found in abundance positioned on top of the Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida or it landing autonomously at Vandenberg Base in California (see left).

As the X-37B pictures show, the craft looks like a mini shuttle. At approximately 9 metres long, 3 metres tall with a wingspan of 4.6 metres, at launch it weighs a little over 5 tones – about the weight of two medium-sized vans with a cargo bay no larger than one of those vans.  It has a speed of just over 28,000 km/h and is approximately one quarter of the size of the Space Shuttle orbiter.  

Where is the X-37B Space Plane now?

X-37B OTV4 at Shuttle Processing Facility
X-37B OTV4 at Shuttle Processing Facility. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Michael Martin / Public domain

Whilst one of the two X-37B Space Planes has embarked upon a mission in lower Earth Orbit and is likely to add years onto the total flight time the craft has raked up to date, in 2014 NASA confirmed that the X-37B Space Planes were to be housed at their Kennedy Space Center Facility in Florida. Occupying orbiter Processing Facilities 1 and 2, Kennedy Space Center officially branded its blue doors to the hanger as the ‘Home of the X-37B’.

Working for the U.S. Air Force on the X-37B

Full vehicle specifications are unknown but it is thought the X-37B is fuelled by a hypergolic nitrogen-tetroxide/hydrazine propulsion system. With advanced avionics, an autonomous guidance system and an advanced airframe the workforce surrounding the maintenance is likely to consist of specialist space recruits of maintenance, development, management analysts, propulsion operations, avionics, engineering and robotics specialisms.

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