After spending nearly two years in orbit, the mysterious X-37B space plane finally landed in California at the Vandenberg Air Force Base on Friday morning. This marks the conclusion of the X-37B’s third and longest mission, with more launches planned in the near future.
Originally launched on December 11, 2012 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the X-37B is the US Air Force’s most advanced unmanned spacecraft whose missions largely remain a mystery, though conjecture among conspiracy theorists abound.
According to US Air Force officials, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle “is designed to demonstrate reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” The statement goes on to state that some of the “[t]echnologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing.”
Manufactured by Boeing, the X-37B has a wingspan of 14 feet and 11 inches, weighs about 5.5 tons, and is 29 feet, 3 inches long and 9 feet, 6 inches high. The X-37B is sent into space using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rockets and can travel in orbit at speeds 25 times faster than the speed of sound. Although Boeing’s X-37B features the latest technology in unmanned autonomous landings from orbit, the first spacecraft to do was the former Soviet Union’s Buran space shuttle in 1988. Another unique feature about the X-37B is its ability to generate power from the sun using gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.
While there is little doubt about the importance of testing highly advanced technologies and the utility in conducting scientific experiments in space, the secrecy surrounding the X-37B has many concerned about issues related to global privacy. It’s also understandable why many are uneasy about a highly secretive spacecraft orbiting space for two years without any clear statement about its full intentions.