Ever since NASA officially decommissioned the space shuttle in 2011, Earth’s skies have been relatively free of space planes. Except for, of course, the secret one. Since 2004 the US Air Force has been operating a fully autonomous space plane, one that is slightly less secret than the Air Force may want it to be. Orbital launches are big and dramatic, making them hard to hide. Most of what we know about the space plane, un-inspiringly named X-37B, comes from its brief childhood with NASA. The X-37B was designed and built by NASA in 1999 and not handed over to the Air Force until 2004. As NASA is not a military agency, the original specifications for the space plane are public record. Since it went under Air Force control, however, almost everything about the X-37B has been classified, although we do know some things.
The X-37B has flown six missions so far, all taking off from NASA’s Kennedy space center in Cape Canaveral Florida. The secretive shuttle took off for the sixth time this past Sunday, May 17th. Its fifth mission was its longest yet, lasting more than 780 days in deep space. Some conspiracy theorists have suggested that X-37B’s real mission is more offensive than is officially stated, perhaps even attacking or kidnapping other country’s satellites. This seems highly implausible however, as the shuttle is extremely small. Its total payload size is about that of a flatbed truck, without much space to put stolen satellites. In addition, the tiny space shuttle does not have much in the way of defenses. Like the traditional space shuttle, the X-37B relies on rockets to carry it into orbit and then comes back down to land on a lengthy runway like a plane. Such extended taxiing would make it extremely vulnerable to attack in wartime, making it an extremely impractical military vehicle.
According to the US government, the stated mission of the X-37B is to “[enable] the US to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain.” The space plane may be getting even closer to its intended mission with this most recent launch, the first to be under the direct command of the newly created US Space Force, although it is still technically considered an Air Force asset. The launch carries tools for a variety of experiments, including studies intended to measure the effect of deep space radiation on common materials and a small satellite. The rocket carrying X-37B to space this time also carried a small tribute to the COVID-19 pandemic threatening world health, with one of the rocket’s plates printed with a tribute to victims and first responders.
As with most X-37B missions, this launch is classified from beginning to end. We do not even know how long the little shuttle will be in orbit this time. Its missions have been regularly increasing in length though, so it is entirely possible that this mission will take even longer than its previous two year mission. If you are interested in learning more about the Space Force’s secret space plane you can read about it at https://www.boeing.com/defense/autonomous-systems/x37b/index.page.