The US Air Force’s Mysterious X-37B Spaceplane
Secret Squirrel in Orbit
The Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane resembles NASA's iconic Space Shuttle, but they are quite different in many regards. The X-37B started out as a NASA program in the late 1990’s, but is now an unmanned autonomous vehicle performing secret missions in space for the Air Force and returns to Earth by landing autonomously like the Soviet Buran Shuttle!
Fun Facts About The Top Secret X-37B!
- The X-37B is a reusable autonomous spaceplane which is launched atop an Atlas V or Falcon 9 rocket and lands on a runway.
- The only spaceplane to have achieved an autonomous landing from orbit was the Soviet Buran during its one orbital mission in 1988.
- The spaceplane measures 8.8 m (29 ft) in length with a launch mass of 5 tonnes (11,000 lbs) making it one quarter the size of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiter.
- Upon re-entry the X-37B spaceplane is designed to operate at up to Mach 25 – that’s nearly 31,000 kilometres an hour!
- The X-37 program started out as a NASA vehicle before it was transferred to the US Air Force which developed the new X-37B version.
- The X-37B was originally based on the United States west coast at Vandenberg Air Force Base, but now launches and lands at Kennedy Space Center taking advantage of the Space Shuttles old facilities.
- Even though the existence of the X-37B isn’t a secret, the onboard equipment and purpose of each mission is classified, which has led to many to speculate what its real purpose is? A space weapon? A spy satellite?
- The orbital missions are really really long! The 4th mission finished on May 7th 2017 lasted nearly 718 days! The Space Shuttle couldn’t stay in space much beyond 15 days!
- The 5th orbital mission of the X-37B testing reusable space technology and performing near zero gravity experiments lifted off on September 7th