In the early morning of May 7, Sunday, Central Florida residents were jolted awake by a mysterious sonic boom that turned out to be from the unmanned X-37B mini space shuttle. The “secret mission” landed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after it stayed in the low-Earth orbit for the last two years.
But what is it really supposed to do, and is it worth the buzz or the expensive price tag?
The Facts On X-37B
The reusable space plane started its Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 (OTV-4) back on May 20, 2015, after being launched with an Atlas V rocket.
Details of the rest of the mission remained mysterious, except for the images, videos, and tidbits of information that were revealed in the days following the space plane landing.
“Our team has been preparing for this event for several years,” said Brigadier General Wayne Monteith, Air Force Space Wing commander. “I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B.”
This tells us that the U.S. military kept a space plane orbiting Earth quietly for more than 700 days that is unknown to civilians, unlike other broadcasted space missions that included SpaceX launches and operations around the International Space Station (ISS).
This could be considered the fourth mission since 2010, which seeks to harness technologies for the Air Force’s reliable, reusable, and uncrewed space test platform. While highly classified (including its budget), the program involving two X-37B space planes may have been receiving more civilian attention with each run.
The mission is under the wing of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, an Air Force unit specializing in aircraft technology development. It was an offshoot of a NASA project in 1998 that sought to reduce space transportation costs and was then moved to DARPA back in 2004. It became classified from there.
Built by Boeing, X-37B planes obtained their aerodynamic model from NASA space shuttles that reigned for decades, yet they feature a separate type of heat shield. Each plane weighs around 11,000 pounds upon launch and maintains a 14-feet wingspan. It also has an ability to spend at least 270 days in orbit.
Is The X-37B Worth It?
While classified, the program’s budget is estimated to be in the vicinity of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, including Boeing’s $301 million paycheck for developing the vehicle.
But is it all worth it? Experts weighed in on the matter.
Space security scientist Laura Grego said that while it is capable of doing certain things, the plane is not specifically created to perform them “except for returning a spacecraft in a nice, tidy way,” pointing to more efficient endeavors such as robotic cargo transport missions to ISS and other experiments in low-Earth orbit.
The space plane is also not intended for agility in orbit, which meant to sidle up to see a satellite would be quite an undertaking. It takes a lot of fuel to try getting close to certain objects not in neighboring orbits, cited Grego as an example.
At any rate, the country successfully demonstrated its capability to launch and land spacecraft since the space shuttle program came to an end.
“The ability to land, refurbish, and launch from the same location further enhances the OTV's ability to rapidly integrate and qualify new space technologies,” said Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director Randy Walden in a statement.