The United States’ mini-space shuttle, the X-37B drone, is gearing up for its seventh long-duration flight. Similar to its past missions, this vehicle will conduct a wide range of experiments, returning them to Earth for analysis. Additionally, it will showcase numerous demonstrations of innovative technologies. Furthermore, it will be utilized to launch one or more small satellites into orbit and potentially retrieve at least one. The flight profile will be expanded, likely involving unprecedented maneuvers.
Thirteen months after completing a 908-day sixth mission, an X-37B is poised to return to space for an extremely long-duration mission, potentially surpassing 1,000 days in orbit. Scheduled for December 7, 2023, the spacecraft will be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
A Service Module That Enhances the Vehicle’s Capabilities
This seventh mission, beyond its scientific experiments, aims to “push the boundaries of the vehicle by operating in new orbital regimes,” according to Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, the program director. Enhanced flight capabilities result from the operational use of a service module tested in the previous mission. This module hosted various experiments, including one converting solar energy into microwave radiofrequency and another studying the effects of space on material samples and seeds. The seventh flight will introduce new experiments exposing seeds and materials to space radiation.
With the integration of this module, the X-37B becomes a more reactive, flexible experimentation platform capable of staying in orbit even longer. Improved maneuverability and expanded flight capabilities will facilitate the exploration of novel trajectories and orbital changes.
A Vehicle That Contributes to America’s Technological Lead
Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, emphasizes the vehicle’s contribution to American technological advancement by highlighting the “significance of the mission’s experimental efforts” with a focus on space radiation. He underscores the X-37B’s role in “enhancing current and future space operations,” reflecting the U.S. Space Force’s commitment to innovation and redefining possibilities in space.
Record Orbiting Times Raise Questions
While the X-37B’s initial missions raised questions about their true nature, it is now evident that it primarily serves as an orbital testbed rather than a tool for military or espionage activities. Experts, while skeptical about its purely military use, remain intrigued by the remarkably long duration of its missions. The program’s secrecy lies in the justification for prolonged stays in orbit, mission after mission.
Two X-37Bs are reportedly in service, collectively completing six missions:
- OTV-1: April 22 to December 3, 2010 (224 days)
- OTV-2: March 5, 2011, to June 16, 2012 (468 days)
- OTV-3: December 11, 2012, to October 17, 2014 (674 days)
- OTV-4: May 20, 2015, to May 7, 2017 (718 days)
- OTV-5: September 7, 2017, to October 27, 2019 (780 days)
- OTV-6: May 17, 2020, to November 12, 2022 (908 days)