The X-37B, an unmanned space plane, this week successfully touched down at the Kennedy Space Centre after two years orbiting Earth. A quarter of the size of the Space Shuttle and built by Boeing, the aircraft has attracted great interest from militarists, scientists and conspiracy theorists.
The X-37B in figures
- Length: 8.9m (29ft 3ins)
- Wingspan: 4.5m (14ft 11ins)
- Height: 2.9m (9ft 6ins)
- Launch Weight: 11,000lbs (4,990kg)
- Power: Gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries
So, what’s the backstory?
A NASA project when it was originally conceived in 1999 the X-37B was transferred to the military five years later and was first launched in 2010.
Part of the 45th Space Wing, it is officially part of a programme to develop reusable space vehicles though the US Air Force will not comment on the specifics of the aircraft’s mission in space.
However, it does say the aircraft ‘performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.’
What are they saying about the flight?
The US Air Force were understandably chuffed to get their aircraft back after a 24 month flight and Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith said: “Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing as we continue to break barriers.
“Our team has been preparing for this event for several years, and I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B.”
The self-congratulations continued with Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office saying: “The hard work of the X-37B OTV team and the 45th Space Wing successfully demonstrated the flexibility and resolve necessary to continue the nation’s advancement in space.
“The ability to land, refurbish, and launch from the same location further enhances the Orbital Test Vehicle’s ability to rapidly integrate and qualify new space technologies.”
None of which really said anything about the actual mission. So, what was the X-37B doing on its two year journey around space?
What are the conspiracy theorists saying?
Naturally enough, any space flight which is shrouded in secrecy will generate plenty of speculation and conspiracy theories.
At the time of its launch most theories revolved around space warfare and the aircraft being used as some sort of space fighter or bomber. Unlikely given its size and the amount of fuel it would need to target specific objectives.
Another theory, and possibly a more sensible one, was that it could be used to take out satellites launched by Russia or China. It could easily do it but that doesn’t answer the question about what it has been doing for the last two years. If Russia or China had lost any satellites they would probably have noticed.
Another possibility is that could be used to retrieve rogue or malfunctioning satellites, bringing them back to Earth for repair.
But, surveillance is the most plausible role for the X-37B. An aircraft which can return to Earth would be much more efficient than normal spy satellites. Carrying the latest kit, which could be upgraded as and when needed, it would also be cheaper and faster than launching new satellites.
What has it really been doing?
Who knows? But, the most likely scenario is the most boring of all. It was simply testing unmanned flight and re-entry.
Of course, now the Air Force have proven they can launch and retrieve an unmanned spacecraft successfully they can now turn their attention to more practical applications of the technology.
Which takes us back to those conspiracy theories……