Mysterious X-37B Unmanned Space Plane Returns After Long, Secret Mission.

May 08 2017 - 12 Comments
By Tom Demerly

Mission of Secret Space Drone Remains Unknown Following 717-Day Orbit.

The secretive U.S. Air Force Boeing X-37B orbital unmanned spacecraft has landed at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on the east coast of Florida after an extended 717-day long mission in earth orbit. The specifics of the mission and the role of the X-37B remain classified.

The spacecraft touched down on runway 15 using normal aircraft-style landing gear, similar to the now-retired manned space shuttle program. Landing time was shortly before noon UTC or about 08:00 AM local time zone in the Eastern U.S. Despite its classified mission, video of the landing has been widely publicized.

The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 landed at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017. Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft that performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.

Since the first flight of the X-37B was seven years ago, on April 22, 2010, it is reasonable to suggest the program has moved beyond the developmental stage and may now be an operational project. This has created substantial speculation about what the role of the X-37B may be.

Three theories have prevailed:

The first theory is that the X-37B is a space-based weapons platform. The spacecraft is pre-deployed into orbit armed with some type of weaponized re-entry vehicle that could be released over or near a specific target. It may also be a weapons delivery vehicle deployed in defense of space-based commercial assets such as the GPS satellite constellation. This theory is debunked by most analysts.

Secondly, and most plausibly, the spacecraft may be a platform for gathering intelligence. This could include signals intelligence such as activities of communications and surveillance satellites, both civilian and military. With approximately 2,271 satellites in orbit around the earth at various altitudes performing a wide variety of functions this theory tends to be the most realistic. It may also be ground mapping radar and other surveillance mediums. Since the large internal payload bay of the X-37B, about the size of the interior of a small general aviation aircraft such as a Cessna Caravan, is interchangeable the spacecraft could be “mission adaptive”, meaning it could be reconfigured for various types of surveillance. That this last mission was so long in duration suggests the X-37B may have had a means of transmitting intelligence from space back down to earth, somehow beyond the capabilities of existing space based surveillance platforms like satellites.

Lastly, and most unlikely, the X-37B remains a research project. It could potentially be a test bed for deploying satellites and servicing them robotically in space, releasing new orbital packages into space or any number of other roles not yet performed operationally. Given the duration and investment into the program along with the operational security surrounding it this theory seems least likely. A major part of X-37B operations are administered by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a shadowy U.S. government agency located in Arlington, Virginia.

In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline March 30, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, FLa. (Courtesy photo)

Several techno-thriller writers have included the X-47B in their fictional story lines as both an ISR platform (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) and a weapons delivery vehicle.

Whatever the role of the secret X-37B project the continuing operation of the spacecraft certainly verifies it is up to something. For the time being it remains one of many fascinating projects we are left to speculate about, which is sometimes more fun than actually knowing.


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  • Uniform223

    *puts on tinfoil hat*
    It’s used as a communication device for a hyper advanced intergalactic race of super potatoes that actually run all the world’s governments and economies. We’re actually a source or resources for them in their on going war against the cabbage beings of the C130-Z51 galaxy. Alex Jones is our embassador.

  • RCDavis

    …but how do they see out of that thing in order to land?


  • leroy

    Unlike with Iran, this isn’t a wood and fiberglass model like their Qaher-313 – this is the real deal! More proof of U.S. technological superiority. Now, just think of what we have hidden at Groom Lake. : )

    • danny king

      You do realise that the actual platform itself is not very high tech? What it does up there, though, is very interesting, isnt it?

  • leroy

    Nothing like landing at 200 kts! The speed just before touchdown is incredible. Hat’s off to whoever made those tires. I have no idea how they keep them inflated while in space and for touchdown, but I guarantee you the pressure is more than 50 psi like was stenciled on the Qaher-313! What a joke. lol!!

  • Pacemaker4

    why are they carrying their laundry on their backs?

  • TractorEngineer

    I notice that when it comes back, the guys out at the landed craft always wear full bunny suits including forced-air. I wonder if that’s because they use hydrazine as a propellant?

  • Black Eagle

    Maybe it was just searching for the mysterious Black Knight satellite, which is reportedly orbiting the Earth for 13,000 years.

  • ari rottenberg

    “Lastly, and most unlikely, the X-37B remains a research project…Given the duration and investment into the program along with the operational security surrounding it this theory seems least likely”

    For those same reasons, I thought that this was the most likely scenario. Many projects – including those expected to be low-cost and short term – prove expensive and suffer numerous delays. Also, by keeping it a “research project” instead of something that’s in production as an actual platform our civilian leadership can make cancellation more palatable. If X-37 is expected to go into production, it may be harder to justify cancellation because of the money already sunk into putting it into some regular production and use. Cancelling the program would mean that the government will have nothing to show for its money. Calling it a research program, on the other hand, makes cancellation more feasible and less painful, because technology developed for research purposes – not strongly linked to a specific platform – can be applied to future programs whether the X-37 is cancelled or not.

  • ari rottenberg

    What’s the point of making it land like an airplane? Doesn’t that require more complicated control surfaces and control mechanisms, not to mention added weight?

  • ClarkeJohnston

    Indeed. Precautions never hurt . . . . and the movie still resonates to this day . . .

  • Cocidius

    They are wearing the Level A PPE since the X-37B uses hypergolic nitrogen tetroxide/hydrazine propellant which is highly toxic.