US Air Force’s X-37B reusable space plane has finally reached a new milestone by continuing to be in orbit for more than 800 days.
The X-37B is a test vehicle that will be a pilot test program showcasing technologies for reliable, reusable unmanned space tests. It aims to showcase two things:
– Potential of reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space
– Operational opportunities for experiments that can be returned to and examined on Earth.
The X-37B is the most advanced re-entry spacecraft based on NASA’s X-37 design. It starts with a vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes, where it conducts test experimentations. Then, once it receives a command from USAF, it will autonomously re-enter the atmosphere and descend horizontally on the runway.
In 2021, its orbit lasted 224 days, and the OTV-5 held the highest record of being in orbit for 780 days (from September 2017 to October 2019).
The newest OTV-6 that launched from Cape Canaveral on May 17, 2020, had two publicly revealed payloads which include:
- Air Force Academy’s FalconSAT-8
- Naval Research Laboratory’s experimental Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module
However, with the advancements of the X-37B, China and Russia are doubtful that the experiments are done purely for scientific reasons. They are saying this spacecraft may also be used to bomb enemy satellites.
The first launch of the #X37B since the establishment of the #USSF demonstrates the department’s continued innovation & collaboration that pushes the boundaries for reusable space systems. This mission will host
more experiments than any previous mission. https://t.co/MbVjw45ePt pic.twitter.com/KccMPU76Bj
— Office of the Secretary of the Air Force (@SecAFOfficial) May 6, 2020
In a report by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, they said their analysts are claiming the “spacecraft could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling enemy satellites as it circles the globe.”
“Industry analysts said the spacecraft could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling enemy satellites as it circles the globe,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency wrote on June 17, a day after OTV-2 touched down at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Xinhua also added that this is a prime example of how the US develops weapons “while stating in public that they’re doing no such thing.”
As for Russia, their fears are even deeper, claiming these spacecraft could be used as a “secret high-flying bomber designed to drop nuclear warheads from the orbit.”
Director-general of state-owned Almaz-Antey design firm Yan Novikov said during the New Knowledge Conference that US’ unmanned spaceplanes could carry up to six nuclear weapons. He added that even though the X-37B publicly announced its mission as purely scientific, it was developed for “reconnaissance.”
“…in fact, it serves as a nuclear-armed space bomber,” Novikov claimed.
He also added that the USAF will definitely expand its fleet of unmanned spaceplanes to eight by 2025.
chinese x37b pic.twitter.com/KCkMAllw0K
— David willis (@ThePrimaIDino) March 4, 2021
While Chinese and Russian state-owned media are claiming the X-37B is a threat to world peace, a suspicious Chinese space plane was recently discovered doing test orbit experiments in the low atmosphere.
Last week, China launched a classified reusable space vehicle that can carry a rocket. The spacecraft reportedly took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert.
As per Xinhua, this spacecraft will be in orbit for a “period of time before returning to the scheduled landing site in China, during which reusable and in-orbit service technology verification will be carried out as planned to provide technical support for the peaceful use of space.”
US Space Force tracked the supposed unmanned spacecraft and noted that it was in a 346 by 593 kilometer orbit included by 50 degrees.
What’s even more interesting is how eerily similar the Chinese aircraft is to the X-37B. It has identical shapes and lengths. According to Debrief, the Chinese counterpart is a “near clone of the X-37B.”
“The most notable exception is the CSSHQ’s continued use of a conventional vertical stabilizer, as opposed to the current X-37 B’s twin angled tailfins.”
Even in an interview with South China Morning Post, a Chinese military source was asked how their new spacecraft would function, and the source simply replied with: “maybe you can take a look at the US X-37B.”
However, its payload specifics are still unknown, leaving many to speculate that this launch has a military-related purpose.
Former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said the US should be wary of these new technologies from other countries since they could pose high risks of retaliation.
“Which means our adversaries don’t know — and that happens on the far side of the Earth from our adversaries — where it’s going to come up next. And we know that that drives them nuts. And I’m really glad about that,” said Wilson.