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X-37B spacecraft, owned by the Pentagon, is shrouded in mystery and whispers

The Pentagon’s X-37B, an unmanned drone, is gearing up for a mission that is set to launch today at 8:14 pm Eastern time. This small spacecraft is less than 30 feet in length and under 10 feet in height. It has a pair of compact wings and a rounded, bulldog-like nose. 

Often compared to a miniature space shuttle, the purpose and capabilities of X-37B remain shrouded in mystery. Is it a covert weapon, a stealth technology, or something else? These questions linger as the Pentagon maintains its silence.

For the first time, the X-37B will be launched on SpaceX’s powerful Falcon Heavy rocket. This shift to a more potent launcher hints at a potential higher orbit – speculation that is supported by recent documents. However, the exact nature and purpose of its higher orbit activities remain undisclosed. SpaceX secured the $130 million contract for this launch back in 2018.

Focus on “space domain awareness”

The Pentagon remains tight-lipped about the specific activities of the X-37B in its higher orbit, stating only that the mission involves “a wide range of test and experimentation objectives.” These include operating in new orbital regimes and experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies.

The focus on “space domain awareness” hints at the X-37B’s potential role in monitoring satellites and guarding against threats in space – a mission that closely aligns with the objectives of the U.S. Space Force

General Chance Saltzman, the Space Force’s chief of space operations, emphasized the increasing threats to U.S. space systems.

“Our space systems are threatened by a variety of growing anti satellite capabilities, and the joint force is threatened by increasingly sophisticated adversary space-based systems intended to target the joint force,” General Saltzman said in a statement to Congress earlier this year.

X-37B’s cutting-edge technologies

One thing that is known about X-37B’s mission is that the vehicle will expose plant seeds to the harsh radiation environment of long-duration spaceflight in an experiment for NASA. 

The X-37B, built by Boeing, has previously been used to test cutting-edge technologies like a small solar panel for transforming solar energy into microwaves, a concept that could enable space-to-Earth energy transmission. The spacecraft has also deployed small satellites, but their purposes remain undisclosed.

“The U.S. government is in this weird place where they brag publicly about how amazing it is and cutting edge, but will not provide any info about it,” said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation.

Weeden suggests that much of the speculation surrounding the vehicle is likely off-base, with its mystique being its most defining trait. Secure World downplays the likelihood of the X-37B being used as an orbital weapons system for attacking ground targets.

China’s secretive space plane 

The X-37B is more likely employed for the purposes stated by the Pentagon: testing reusable space launch vehicle technologies and on-orbit testing of new sensor technologies and satellite hardware. This hasn’t stopped nations like China from perceiving the X-37B as a symbol of U.S. space militarization.

China’s own secretive reusable space plane, the Shenlong, has completed two missions, with its latest lasting 276 days in orbit. Like the X-37B, the Shenlong is shrouded in secrecy, with no publicly released photos. This apparent mimicry of the American model suggests China’s interest in similar space capabilities.

Covert operations of the X-37B

The X-37B’s history spans over a decade in space, with each mission exceeding the duration of the last. Its last flight ended in November 2022 after 908 days in orbit. General David Thompson of the Space Force hinted at exciting plans for the X-37B. He acknowledges its role as a remarkable test bed and experimentation vehicle.

The upcoming Mission 7 of the X-37B, launching on the Falcon Heavy, will include a mixture of innocuous civilian NASA science and military experimentation with space domain awareness. This combination of civilian and military objectives underscores the dual nature of the mission.

The X-37B’s development history is intertwined with NASA, the Air Force, and Boeing’s Phantom Works. Initially envisioned as a lifeboat for the International Space Station, its design evolved to meet various military and experimental needs. The spacecraft’s ability to deploy solar arrays in orbit allows for extended missions, a capability unmatched by the Space Shuttle.

The X-37B’s design suggests potential for covert operations, such as retrieving or inspecting foreign satellites without detection. The U.S. has expressed concerns about similar activities by nations like Russia and China, highlighting the strategic importance of space domain awareness.

In summary, the combination of the X-37B and Falcon Heavy opens up possibilities for high-energy orbits and advanced military capabilities in space. While the specifics of the X-37B’s upcoming mission remain classified, its launch signals the U.S.’s intent to maintain dominance in space.

Image Credit: AP / U.S. Air Force


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