Tim Fernholz | Quartz | May 9, 2017 | 0 Comments

The US Air Force Wants to Remind You (and China) That its Secret Space Drone Is Back

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. U.S. Air Force/AP

One of the weirdest open secrets in space has come back to earth: The X-37B, an experimental US Air Force drone that looks and flies like a miniature Space Shuttle, landed at Kennedy Space Center on May 7 with a sonic boom that surprised local residents.

The autonomous craft spent 718 days in space. Unlike its previous three trips, when the Air Force provided few details about its mission, this time military spokespeople can point to two totally not nefarious at all science projects.

While more speculative analysts suspect electronic espionage directed at Chinese spacecraft, the US Air Force says this is just a run-of-the-mill experimental craft designed to demonstrate reusable space technology can survive radiation, volatile temperatures and micro-asteroids.

“The landing of OTV-4 [the name of this mission] marks another success for the X-37B program and the nation,” Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen, the officer who manages the program, said in a statement. “This mission once again set an on-orbit endurance record and marks the vehicle’s first landing in the state of Florida. We are incredibly pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and are excited about the data gathered to support the scientific and space communities.”

This flight featured the test of an advanced US Air Force engine, designed to propel spacecraft using thrusters powered by electrically charged particles, as well as a NASA experiment to evaluate how dozens of different materials withstand long-term exposure to space.

The fourth flight of the Boeing-built spacecraft began with a launch on May 20, 2015. To reach space, the X-37B flies inside a faring—an aerodynamic nose cone—on top of an Atlas rocket, built by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance.

On landing, however, it flies back through the atmosphere like a plane, landing on the enormous runway at Kennedy Space Center where its predecessor, the Space Shuttle, would land when it was in regular service.

Despite the secrecy around the project’s purpose, the US Air Force regularly releases video and imagery of the craft to the media, and there is an enormous “Home of the X-37B” sign on the outside of Boeing’s facility at KSC.

There is rising interest in how low-cost access to space will effect national security—in brief: It could be very destabilizing indeed if new players and advanced weapons become feasible thanks to reusable rockets. The US putting its own secret space project on full display should be taken as an advertisement of American capabilities in space. Amateur astronomers (and no doubt other governments) have tracked the X-37b as it changes orbits, appears to track other satellites or maintains a stable orbit over a specific part of the globe.

Even as Russia and China surreptitiously test anti-satellite weapons, the US is reminding them that it has a maneuverable spacecraft capable of hanging out quietly in orbit, shadowing their space assets, and doing, well, who knows what?


Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from Nextgov.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.