The U.S. military’s drone spaceplane is just days away from breaking another flight duration record and no one knows what its purpose is.
The X-37B’s latest mission began on May 17, 2020, Boeing said at the time of its launch, without disclosing the purpose of its mission. Now the spacecraft has marked 775 days in orbit as of Friday and is just days away from breaking the 780-day in-orbit endurance record set on its previous mission in 2019.
The X-37B is described as “a reliable, reusable, uncrewed space test platform designed to carry experiments to orbit and return them to Earth for evaluation.” According to Space.com, the X-37B program is managed by the U.S. Space Force unit Delta 9.
“Delta 9 Detachment 1 oversees operations of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, an experimental program designed to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Space Force,” Space Force officials said.
“The mission of Delta 9 is to prepare, present, and project assigned and attached forces for the purpose of conducting protect-and-defend operations and providing national decision authorities with response options to deter and, when necessary, defeat orbital threats,” officials continued. “Additionally, Delta 9 supports Space Domain Awareness by conducting space-based battlespace characterization operations and also conducts on-orbit experimentation and technology demonstrations for the U.S. Space Force.”
Boeing described the X-37B as “one of the world’s newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” that is “designed to operate in low-earth orbit, 150 to 500 miles above the Earth.”
“The vehicle is the first since the Space Shuttle with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis,” the company continued. “This United States [Space] Force unmanned space vehicle explores reusable vehicle technologies that support long-term space objectives.”
The plane has several features that had never been used in space before, including “avionics designed to automate all de-orbit and landing functions” and “flight controls and brakes using all electro-mechanical actuation; no hydraulics on board.”
The spacecraft was also built with a lighter composite structure instead of typical aluminum.
“The X-37B has a lifting body-style and landing profile that is similar to the Space Shuttle, but the vehicle is one-fourth the size,” Boeing stated. “The X-37B design combines the best of aircraft and spacecraft into an affordable system that is easy to operate and maintain.”
The X-37B previously earned the National Aeronautic Association award for “advancing the performance, efficiency and safety of air and space vehicles.”
“First awarded in 1911, the trophy’s past recipients include Orville Wright; the Apollo 11 lunar landing team; the International Space Station, built by Boeing for NASA; the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, built by Boeing for the U.S. Navy; and the Boeing 787, 777 and 747 commercial airplanes,” Boeing said in a 2020 press release.