Overshadowed in the past week by the launch of Artemis, NASA’s renewed moon mission, was another incredible space achievement, one cloaked in secrecy.

In 1999, NASA commissioned Boeing to develop an “orbital vehicle.” Boeing designed the X-37 to be a scaled model of the Space Shuttle Orbiter. The orbiter is the part of the Space Shuttle you see in your mind when you think of the vehicle, but it is technically just the part of the apparatus that looks like an airplane. The entirety of the Shuttle contains other modules.

The original point of this smaller model was to devise a ship that could maneuver easily in space. One potential usage of this type of craft would be to have the agility to intersect with satellites to make repairs. Another was, perhaps, to begin development for a possible rescue ship for the International Space Station. In the early designs, the X-37 would have gone to space aboard its larger lookalikes, but such a plan proved to be unfeasible. Instead, NASA pivoted to sending them up on rockets, from which they would glide around space with ease.

An artist's rendering of the X-37 spacecraft in 1999 - graphic from NASA

So far, so normal. Nothing mysterious about this evolution of orbital vehicles.

Enter DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

In 2004, responsibility for the X-37 “transferred” from NASA to the Department of Defense. The craft became a “classified project,” under the purview of the Air Force and, later, the Space Force.

During the past two decades, the X-37 became an extremely high-tech robotic spaceplane.

As far as we can tell.

X-37B 1 in 2022 - photo by U.S. Space Force

Once the military groups assumed control of the project, they officially stated the program would focus on “risk reduction, experimentation, and operational concept development for reusable space vehicle technologies, in support of long-term developmental space objectives.” Fairly vague. The only real information available was one of the design goals: to remain in orbit for up to 270 days.

Since then, X-37 evolved into – to mix metaphors, as we love to do – a world champion long-distance runner.

When the agencies were officially ready to send these craft away from Earth, they had developed the second generation unit, the X-37B. The first flight, which transpired in 2010, lasted 224 days. Just a year later, the technology reached 468 days in space, more than a full year. Launched in late 2012, the X-37B spent 674 days aloft, easily cruising into the latter months of 2014. The mission that left in 2015 pushed past the 700-day mark, landing after 717 spins of the planet.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched X-37B into space on 7 September 2017. It did not land for more than two years, touching down after 779 days in October 2019.

In the past week, however, the craft obliterated its own record. 

Between 17 May 2020 and 12 November 2022, the X-37B spent 908 days in space!

While this fact is clearly impressive for a non-stationary extraplanetary vehicle, what is this craft doing while it’s away for so long?

That answer depends on whom one asks.

According to the U.S. government, the ship is continuing to develop the technology for agile spaceplanes without the need for human occupancy and to carry out scientific experiments that benefit from long periods in space.

Though we don’t have much information about the craft or their missions, the second part of the above statement does appear to be true. OTV-6, short for the sixth mission of the Orbital Test Vehicle, another name for the X-37B, featured two NASA experiments. The first was a plate that exposed various materials to long-term space conditions, while the second focused on the effects of ambient radiation on seeds. Further, the Naval Research Laboratory developed an experiment, in which they changed solar power into microwaves, which were then beamed to Earth. The mission also deployed a small satellite crafted by Space Force cadets.

But is the goal of this super-craft purely scientific?

The craft after landing on 12 November - photo from Space Force

Not if you ask the Russians or Chinese.

The former head of the Russian space agency stated that the X-37B could be “a carrier of some kind of reconnaissance apparatus, and a carrier of weapons of mass destruction.” Chinese military expert Song Zhongping added, “If the X-37B can be loaded with small satellites, it can also be loaded with weapons. It may also be able to be fitted with robotic arms to capture other satellites that are in orbit.”

Though we are loath to trust the words of officials from these nations, one would need to be fairly naive to believe a classified project, seized from NASA, would fall into the category of “only science experiments.”

The Space Force remains mum on the proprietary info on the craft – propulsion systems, heat tiling, maneuvering capabilities – and its military aims. After the recent mission, they offered the following statement: 

“The X-37B continues to push the boundaries of experimentation, enabled by an elite government and industry team behind the scenes. The ability to conduct on-orbit experiments and bring them home safely for in-depth analysis on the ground has proven valuable for the Department of the Air Force and scientific community. The addition of the service module on OTV-6 allowed us to host more experiments than ever before.”

The X-37B might not follow Artemis to the moon, but an autonomous vehicle that can remain in space for nearly 1,000 days is certainly exciting technology. Hopefully, we utilize it for edifying reasons.

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