Air Force’s Mysterious Space Plane Ends 780-Day Mission
The secretive Boeing X-37, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), is a reusable robotic aircraft whose most recent mission, Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 (OTV-5), was launched from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on September 7, 2017.
Two days ago, on October 27, 2019, the X-37 landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility after setting a record of 780 days in orbit.
In a previous article at InSpaceNews, we covered the technical specifications of this remarkable aircraft. But the question on everyone’s mind is “What was it doing up there?”
Classified Missions and Science Experiments
Since 2010, the Air Force has performed five OTV missions. However, Air Force officials have generally declined to offer any details on the experiments performed.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle breaks record with 780 days in orbit after landing at @NASAKennedy‘s Shuttle Landing Facility at 3:51 a.m.
— U.S. Air Force (@usairforce) October 27, 2019
On the previous OTV-4 mission, which spent 718 days aloft, the X-37B performed a test of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s XR-5A Hall-effect thruster. In addition, OTV-4 carried about 100 samples of materials for use in building spacecraft for scientific purposes.
And yet, many other flight objectives remain classified. Some servicemembers speculate that the space plane could be weaponized, perhaps as an anti-satellite weapon. In addition to the official Air Force missions of testing new technologies, it is likely that the X-37B also serves some sort of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) function.
X-37B Continues to Demonstrate the Importance of a Reusable Spaceplane
“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”
According to Defense News, “the X-37B has spent 2,865 days on orbit cumulatively over its five missions, with four of those missions extending past the 270-day on-orbit duration requirement to which the plane was designed.”
The Air Force plans to launch a sixth mission from Cape Canaveral in 2020. The United States is the only country with a reusable space plane capability providing the U.S. with a distinct strategic advantage. After all, whoever controls the high ground often emerges victorious.