Science 3 min read

In Orbit two Years, Mysterious U.S. Military Spacecraft Returns to Earth

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Alones /

Last Sunday in Florida, U.S. military spacecraft X-37B discretely landed after two years in orbit. Concluding its fourth orbital mission, the U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft continues raising questions and speculation over its specific purpose.

Consider Boeing and SpaceX. The first draws its energy from a legacy deeply rooted in the history of U.S. aircraft and propulsion technologies; the other builds its vision on an impressive, ambitious strategy that is turned towards the future. The two, despite sharing professional relationships with NASA, do not hide their rivalry.

On Monday, May 1, a SpaceX rocket landed after conveying a top-secret payload for the U.S. The payload is reportedly a spy satellite for the NRO, or the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, X-37B, a spacecraft developed by Boeing since 1999, was preparing to return to Earth.

What was its mission?

X-37B, the Secretive, Unmanned U.S. Military Spacecraft

On Sunday, 7:47 a.m. EDT, the U.S. Air Force’s space plane known as X-37B successfully touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The mysterious U.S. military spacecraft has been in orbit for almost two years (718 days), setting an on-orbit endurance record.

The Orbital Test Vehicle program was launched back in 1999, and the X-37B flew for the first time in 2010 for its first mission where it spent eight months in orbit. With the OTV-4 (Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4), X-37B extended the length of on-orbit missions of the OTV program to 2,085 days.

What has the X-37B Been Doing up There all This Time?

Built by Boeing, the X-37B is a reusable space plane 29 feet long with a 14-foot wingspan and looks like a miniature of the retired NASA space shuttles. Since its first launch, the secrecy surrounding the X-37 program (payloads and orbital activities) has led to some wild speculations from conspiracy theorists who had a field day.

U.S. Air Force X-37B unmanned spacecraft just returned from 2 years in orbit.Click To Tweet

Some theories suggest that the suspicious space plane could be used to test out spy surveillance operations against other countries. A report by Spaceflight magazine claims that the X-37 program was created to spy on China’s space station. Another theory is that the U.S. military is testing a new kind of weapons, suggesting that the space shuttle itself is a space bomber capable of hitting targets on Earth. Alternatively, and perhaps more reasonably, some speculate it’s being used to place other dormant or passive weapon systems in orbit.

Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program–as officially stated in a press release by the Air Force–is aimed at risk reduction and experimentation for the development of reusable space vehicle technologies.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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