A strange and secret spacecraft landed in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center in the early morning hours of 7 May 2017 after orbiting Earth for almost two years. The vehicle was without a pilot and completed its 718-day mission entirely under robotic control. Don’t unpack your tinfoil hats just yet. The spacecraft was not alien in origin, but belonging to the United States Air Force.
The X-37B, the Air Force’s experimental and classified Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), is an “unmanned, long-duration spacecraft” that was originally designed by NASA in the 1990s. In 2004, the project was transferred the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Once the mad scientists at DARPA took control of the project, it became classified. The project is now controlled by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.
While some have suggested that the X-37B is a weapons platform, potentially for use against satellites, the Air Force vehemently denies such rumors. Air Force officials instead claim that the X-37B is used to test sensors and satellite technologies in a space environment.
The the nine feet, six inch tall space plane has a length of twenty-nine feet, three inches, and a wingspan of fourteen feet, eleven inches, is too small and does not have the maneuverability to serve as a weapons platform, experts say.
The craft takes off with an Atlas V booster rocket and lands on a runway, like the larger space shuttles. The unmanned craft contains a payload bay, which apparently carries guidance, navigation, and sensory equipment. Underneath the payload doors, Boeing patents suggest, is a solar panel which unfolds to provide power to the craft during longer missions.
The most recent mission, one which lasted 718 days is the longest to date and is the fourth flight of the secretive spacecraft. The first mission, OTV-1, began on 22 April 2010 and lasted 224 days. OTV-2 launched 5 March 2011 and lasted 468 days. OTV-3 lasted 674 days after launching on 11 December 2012. OTV-4, the most recent mission, began on 20 May 2015.
While OTV-4 is the longest mission for the X-37B, it is not the longest spaceflight mission. Voyager 1 and 2 are still sending data back to NASA, beginning their missions in 1977.
Much speculation remains and will continue to remain, about the specifics of the X-37B’s missions. The Air Force, naturally, has spoken only in vague, broad brushed statements about equipment testing. While this may in fact be true, the potential capabilities for such a craft cannot be ignored.
Despite claims by the Air Force that the X-37B is not a weapons platform, it would be foolish to assume that the thought had not crossed their minds. If anything, the X-37B is a testbed not simply for sensory equipment, but for crafts of that size which could, potentially, be developed into weapons platforms.
With the increased dependence on satellite technologies for communication and surveillance, space is the next logical frontier for the future of warfare.
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