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Boeing X-37B: the top-secret plane that spent 908 days in space – Science – Life

The United States Space Force Boeing X-37B autonomous military aircraft was built by the Boeing companywith the aim of being a space testing platform.

This aircraft works thanks to solar energy and is unmanned. It holds the record for being the space vehicle with the most consecutive days of flight around the Earth, with 908 days in orbit. This occurred during her last mission, which ended in November 2022.

However, the X-37B’s capabilities are confidential. Despite this, Boeing confirmed that the plane has carried several pieces into space to complement studies on the composition of the Earth’s orbit; among these, a satellite designed and built by a group of cadets from the US Air Force Academy, a solar energy experiment from the Naval Research Laboratory and other NASA experiments.

A complex start

The X-37B has been active since 2010, the year in which it had its first mission. However, the project began in the 1990s and the vast majority of the information on its operation is classified.

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However, in 1999, the director of the project, Susan Turner, assured in a NASA press document that it was done with the aim of reducing up to 10 times the cost of carrying out a space mission: “We must make space transportation more affordable and reliable if we are to lead the way for future exploration and trade.”

Artist’s rendering of the X-37.

The initial agreement between the US aerospace company and Boeing specified the construction of two aircraft: an X-37 focused on testing landing technologies and another same model to experiment ascents, orbit, reentry and landing.

Although the idea was good, NASA was not happy with the project, feeling that it did not fit with its space exploration agenda. The X-37 closed its operations at the end of the year 2003, after the aerospace company asked Boeing to pause development of the plane until a reliable partner was found.

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However, the US government felt that it was not worth leaving the space project, so the country invested more than 325 million dollars for the X-37 to resume. Likewise, the central government assigned the leadership of the project to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) of the Pentagon.

Darpa immediately classified the project, so it secretly developed a prototype capable of landing on the runway of any airport, named the X-37A, which included advanced spacecraft components such as: control system, heat shield , command control, communication systems and landing gear. It was basically a plane capable of going into space.

The X-37B appears

After several successful tests over three years, NASA became interested in the plan again, so it accompanied the project until 2006. In that year, the US Air Force took over the reins of the X-37 and began developing the X-37B.

This version of the plane was the result of all the successful tests of its predecessor, added to some new ones. Hand in hand with Boeing and NASA, the United States Armed Forces division designed the X-37B as a long-duration, unmanned reusable spacecraft.

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In 2010, Gary Payton, Undersecretary of the Air Force for Special Programs, gave details at a press conference about the type of missions to which the new ship was focused, not without making it clear that the detailed information did not come out of the Confidentiality: “As with many of our space launches, in-orbit activities are classified.”

However, he revealed that, being an activity led by the Air Force, it is no stranger to being focused on being a support vehicle: “In the Air Force we have a set of military missions in space, and this new vehicle could help us to execute them better”.

six missions

In 2010, the X-37B made its first launch on April 22, 2010 and flew for 224 days at an altitude of 408 kilometers (similar to that of the International Space Station). The ship made its landing on December 3 of the same year at the Vandenberg US Air Force Base.

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Takeoff of the space plane on its sixth mission, from Cape Canaveral.

Photo:

United States Air Force

On March 5, 2011, a second X-37B lifted off aboard an Atlas V rocket, completing 468 days in orbit. However, it was on the third and fourth missions that the Air Force realized that it could orbit more than triple the estimated time.

This was put to the test in the fifth mission, which began on September 7, 2017 with the help of a Falcon 9 rocket from the private aerospace company SpaceX and achieved a record 779 days in orbit.

On May 17, 2020, the sixth mission was launched from Cape Canaveral, with the aim of reaffirming “the superiority in space domain” of the United States, as said by John Raymond, Air Force Chief of Space Operations. : “The X-37B team continues to exemplify the kind of agile and advanced technological development that we need as a nation in the space domain.”

The mission was a success, as the plane managed to land safely at the John F. Kennedy Space Center on November 12, 2022, after complete a total of 908 days in orbit.

Specifications

Length: 8.9 meters.

Height: 2.9 meters.

Wingspan: 4.5 meters.

Ability: 227 kilograms.

Maximum takeoff weight: 4,990 kilograms.

Orbital speed: 28,444 kilometers per hour.

power system: Gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.

Control: remote from Earth.

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