A classified United States Space Force (USSF) spacecraft has landed back on Earth after spending a record 908 days in orbit. But what it did over our heads remains shrouded in mystery.
The unmanned X-37B spaceplane touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Station on Nov. 12 at 5:22 a.m. ET, completing the sixth mission it and another identical vehicle have completed since its maiden flight in 2010. Details of its activities during the record-breaking trips are scarce, but officials claim it conducted a number of science experiments about 249 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth.
The X-37B was first designed by Boeing for NASA before being adapted for use by the US military. It is an aircraft-spacecraft hybrid that resembles a miniature space shuttle in many ways. For its sixth mission, classified Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6), it launched vertically in May 2020 while sitting atop an Atlas V rocket. The spaceplane has now spent about 10 years in orbit on all of its missions. which travels about 1.3 billion miles (2.1 billion km). The new flight of 908 days breaks the record of 780 days for a spaceplane in continuous orbit, which was also set by the X-37B on a previous mission.
Related: 10 things we know about the secret X-37B spaceplane
“The X-37B continues to push the boundaries of experimentation, made possible by an elite team of government and industry behind the scenes,” Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, X-37B program director in the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. declaration . “The ability to conduct experiments in orbit and bring them safely home for in-depth analysis on the ground has proven valuable to the Department of the Air Force and the scientific community. The addition of the service module to OTV -6 we could host more experiments than ever before.”
The United States Space Force has only released a few bits of information about the experiments conducted aboard the craft during its most recent flight. These include a test by the US Naval Research Laboratory that successfully harvested light from the sun before beaming it back to Earth as microwaves; and the deployment of an electromagnetically guided training satellite designed by US Air Force cadets. NASA also provided an experiment, called Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS-2), that examined the effects of space on various materials.
No other details of the onboard experiments were revealed, though this didn’t stop the rivals from engaging in speculation. Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, claimed in an April interview with Russia’s state news channel Russia-24 that the craft could be used for espionage or to carry weapons of mass destruction. Chinese military expert and commentator Song Zhongping echoed this sentiment, telling the South China Morning Post that the craft’s ability to change orbits in flight gave it the ability to spy on other satellites or terrestrial targets and launch attacks from orbit. .
“If the X-37B can be loaded with small satellites, it can also be loaded with weapons. It can also potentially be equipped with robotic arms to capture other satellites in orbit,” Song said.
Former Pentagon official Heather Wilson has also commented on the craft’s ability to change its orbit, a capability she said was due to the significant drag generated by its low Earth orbit.
“Which means our adversaries don’t know — and that’s happening on the other side of the Earth from our adversaries — where it’s going to come next,” Wilson said at the Aspen Security Forum in 2019. “And we know that drives them crazy. And I’m really happy about that.”
China also has a secret spaceplane, which was launched into orbit on Aug. 4 from a Long March 5B rocket. As with the X-37B, much of what it does in orbit is unknown.