Everything we know about the United States X-37B space plane

Here's everything we know for sure about the United States' experimental X-37B spaceplane

OTV-4 stationary at the Shuttle Landing Facility.

The project was later called classified. The X-37 was sponsored by DARPA as part of the independent space policy the US Department of Defense has pursued since the 1986 Challenger disaster.

Important statistics of X-37B

These statistics come from official figures and other quoted figures that are readily available to the public.

  • crew: None/Autonomous
  • payload: 500 pounds (227 kg)
  • length: 29 feet 3 inches (8.9 meters)
  • span: 14 feet 11 inches (4.5 meters)
  • Height: 9 feet 6 inches (2.9 meters)
  • Maximum takeoff weight: 4,990 kg
  • Electrical power: Gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries
  • start vehicles: United Launch Alliance Atlas V (501) and SpaceX Falcon 9
  • cargo bay: 7 feet (2.1 meters) × 4 feet (1.2 meters)
  • circulation speed: 17,426 mph (28,044 km/h)
  • orbit: Low Earth Orbit
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Is the X-37B a weapon?

Although the X-37B has flown six missions to date, the true purpose of the X-37B remains a mystery. Understandably, the Space Force’s newest Orbital Test Vehicle drone has raised some suspicions, both domestically and internationally, as to its ultimate purpose. Is it a space-based anti-satellite attack aircraft? Is it used for altitude surveillance and deployment of spy satellites?

Here's everything we know for sure about the United States' experimental X-37B spaceplane

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in its “encapsulation cell” at the Astrotech facility in 2010.

Can it track enemy weapons or launch missile attacks? These and other requests are piling up as the Boeing-built space drone advances in technological development.

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According to the Pentagon, the X-37B was recently equipped with a new service module, which made it possible to transport a large number of experiments into orbit. During a 2020 mission, the X-37B deployed a small satellite called FalconSat-8, which contained five experimental payloads designed by NASA and the US Air Force. This was the first time the military disclosed details of this cargo.

According to an Air Force report, the program tests advanced guidance, navigation and control, avionics, thermal protection systems, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing technologies.

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“Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously reenters the atmosphere, descends, and lands horizontally on a runway,” the Air Force said in a statement.

Here's everything we know for sure about the United States' experimental X-37B spaceplane

Three view plans of the X-37B.

The Air Force’s stated technologies raise numerous intriguing and important questions, many of which have to do with the ability to conduct activities at extremely high speeds and therefore high temperatures. In 2019, former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told a panel at the Aspen Security Forum that the X-37B could potentially be able to fly low enough to use Earth’s atmosphere to alter its orbit, maneuvers designed to do so could prevent enemies from predicting exactly how the vehicle will move.

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