The US Space Force's secretive X-37B space plane: 10 surprising facts
Mike Wall 4 hrs ago
Slide 1 of 11: The U.S. Space Force has a mini-fleet of two robotic
X-37B space planes, which have been flying secret missions since 2010.
The most recent mission, called OTV-6, launched in May 2020 and is
ongoing. As that name suggests, it's the sixth flight for the robotic
X-37B, which is also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). The other
five OTV missions launched in April 2010, March 2011, December 2012, May
2015 and September 2017.
We've assembled 10 surprising facts about the military space plane for
you. Just click the arrows to launch to the next page and enjoy.
1) It's tiny
The X-37B looks a lot like NASA's iconic space shuttle, but the two
types of vehicles don't resemble each other in size. The X-37B is just
29 feet (8.8 meters) long, with a wingspan of 15 feet (4.6 m). The
now-retired space shuttle orbiters, by contrast, were 122 feet (37 m)
long and measured more than 78 feet (24 m) from wingtip to wingtip.Two
X-37Bs could fit inside the shuttle's cavernous payload bay.
Indeed, the X-37B's designers originally envisioned the shuttle carrying
the smaller space plane to orbit but ultimately decided that launching
the X-37B atop a rocket would be more economical. The X-37B has ridden
to orbit atop two different boosters to date — United Launch Alliance's
Atlas V and SpaceX's Falcon 9. Like the space shuttle, the X-37B lands
on a runway, plane-style, but does everything autonomously (in contrast
to the piloted shuttle, which usually carried a crew of seven astronauts).
2) Its missions are classified ---
3) The missions have multiple names--
4) It has NASA roots
The X-37 program started in 1999 with NASA, --
5) The missions are incredibly long
The Air Force's X-37B fact sheet states that the space plane is designed
to spend "270 days or greater" in orbit at a time. The vehicle has
already zoomed past that nine-month marker multiple times.The first
X-37B mission, known as OTV-1, stayed aloft for just 225 days. But OTV-2
and OTV-3 lasted 469 days and 674 days, respectively. OTV-4 circled
Earth for a record-shattering 718 days before it landed in May 2017, and
OTV-5 then broke that mark, racking up 780 days in orbit. OTV-6 is
ongoing, and it's unclear when it will end. --
6) You can see it from the ground
Though the military doesn't disclose the X-37B's precise orbit,
keen-eyed amateur astronomers have managed to track the vehicle from the
ground — and so can you, thanks to their efforts.
Check out Space.com’s satellite tracker to see where the X-37B is
overhead during a mission. The view won't be dramatic; the space plane
usually looks like a star of middling brightness moving across the sky.
7) It's solar powered
Like most satellites, the X-37B generates electrical power from
8) It has multiple launch and landing sites ---
9) China has its own version
The X-37B seems to have a Chinese cousin. In September 2020, a
spacecraft landed on a runway in western China after a two-day mission
about which Chinese officials have said very little. ----
10) A modified variant has been proposed as an 'astronaut ambulance'
The current version of the X-37 may not be the last to reach space. In
2011, Boeing representatives announced that they were considering
developing a larger variant called the X-37C, which could carry up to
six astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). That
concept vehicle is unlikely to be built anytime soon, given that Boeing
is already under contract with NASA to fly astronauts to and from the
orbiting lab with the company's CST-100 Starliner capsule.
Also, an engineering team led by former NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson
has proposed using a modified version of the X-37B as an ISS
emergency-evacuation vehicle. Again, this is just a concept at the
moment, and there's no indication that Boeing is seriously investigating
this "astronaut ambulance" variant.