X-37B: Why This Space Plane Is So Important

January 4, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: X-37BMilitaryNASAChinaRussiaSpace Plane

X-37B: Why This Space Plane Is So Important

The X-37B represents the pinnacle of spacecraft. Designed to operate in low-earth orbit, between 150 to 500 miles above the Earth, the X-37B is the first spaceship since the Space Shuttle with the ability to return to Earth and enable scientists to inspect and analyze space material

 

On December 28, the Space Force, in partnership with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, launched its seventh X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission into space. 

As Great Power Competition between the United States and China steadily increases, both sides are becoming more interested in the space domain and the opportunities it presents for exploration, technology development, and military operations in orbit and on Earth. 

 

X-37B: Exploring Space & Technology 

A SpaceX rocket carried the spaceship into orbit, where it will conduct a series of engineering and technology tests. Specifically, the X-37B will conduct orbital regimes, test space domain awareness technology, and investigate radiation effects on NASA materials. For example, there will be some plant seeds on board the spaceship that will get exposed to radiation from the lengthy duration of the flight with the goal to see how they react under these conditions and the possibility of future crewed space missions further into our galaxy.

“My memories go back to the Gemini and Mercury programs,” said Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall in a press release

With this seventh mission, the Space Force is looking to expand its knowledge of the space environment “by experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies.”

“This is an incredible event, and I think about the teamwork over all those decades that has led to what has been a revolutionary improvement in space travel capability. We have come so far, and it’s been teamwork by the government; the Air Force and now the Space Force, which didn’t exist until a few years ago; NASA; industry teams; and so many others that all contributed to what we saw tonight,” the Secretary of the Air Force added. 

The X-37B represents the pinnacle of spacecraft. Designed to operate in low-earth orbit, between 150 to 500 miles above the Earth, the X-37B is the first spaceship since the Space Shuttle with the ability to return to Earth and enable scientists to inspect and analyze space material. The last time the X-37B was in orbit, it stayed there for just over 900 days. This mission is expected to last well into 2026. 

X-37B

“We are going to expand the envelope. There are some good experiments and tests and that’s the primary goal of that, testing technologies,” Chief of Space Operations General Chance Saltzman said in the weeks leading to the launch of the X-37B. 

X-37B

The newest and most advanced re-entry spaceship in the world, the X-38B is unmanned and the ideal vehicle to test reusable vehicle technologies to enable and support long-range space traveling. 

China launched its own spaceships a few weeks before the American spacecraft. On December 14, Beijing sent the “Shenlong” spaceship into orbit for tests, but the X-37B was initially supposed to fly first, but ground delays held it back. 

X-37B

With China on the rise, space is in danger of getting weaponized. As such, the Space Force has highlighted that the X-37B mission and tests are intended to create “safe, stable, and secure operations for all users of the domain.”

About the Author

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations and a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He holds a BA from Johns Hopkins University and an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.

All images are Creative Commons.