Secret Military Spaceplane Lands After Record-Breaking 780 Days in Orbit

The U.S. Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. U.S. Air Force

The deal with UFOs are that they’re “unidentified flying objects”—you know, as in objects that fly but can’t be identified. One possible explanation: These aerial mysteries, which are the subject of an infinite amount of conspiracy theories, are actually “top secret” U.S. Air Force test planes. You know, top secret, as in the kind the military doesn’t want you to know about, at least not until a few bugs are worked out.

Thus has been the case with the X-37B unpiloted spaceplane—which is no longer top secret—after spending 780 continuous days in orbit (that’s almost two years in layman’s terms). Just this week, the X-37B autonomously landed itself at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the same spot where it originally took off from.

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I do believe the X-37B’s orbiting proclivities have broken some sort of record.

The X-37B, which was built by Boeing, was conducting “classified” experiments for the US Air Force. According to the Air Force statement, one “unclassified” experiment was to “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long-duration space environment.”

Sounds a little vague, but the mission also provided a ride for small satellites, similar to Elon Musk’s vision for his own SpaceX Starlink satellite rideshare.

This was the fifth such flight for the X-37B. The first launch was back in the old-timey days of 2010, and the spacecraft was only designed to fly for 270 days.

According to Boeing’s site, the X-37B’s orbit marks the first use in space of:

  • Avionics designed to automate all de-orbit and landing functions;
  • Flight controls and brakes using all electro-mechanical actuation, no hydraulics on board;
  • Built using a lighter composite structure, rather than traditional aluminum;
  • New generation of high-temperature wing leading-edge tiles and toughened uni-piece fibrous refractory oxidation-resistant ceramic (TUFROC) tiles;
  • Advanced conformal reusable insulation (CRI) blankets; and
  • Toughened uni-piece fibrous insulation (TUFI) impregnated silica tiles.

Not to mention, the X-37B is autonomous, meaning it doesn’t need those pesky astronauts onboard—thus saving lots of money on its spacesuit budget.

In a statement, Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, 45th Space Wing commander, said: “Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing. Our team has been preparing for this event, and I am extremely proud to see their hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B.”

Way to go, Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, way to go!

Still, there are going to be haters out there.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tweeted concerns that “top secret (even TS/SCI) does not trump international law and treaty.”

His issue is that over 90 percent of satellites are registered, and these satellite deployments with the X-37B were not reported—meaning this could be the first time that “either the USA or Russia has blatantly flouted the Convention.”

Haters will hate.

The X-37B launched on Sept. 7, 2017, on-board a Space X Falcon 9 booster. The Air Force is preparing to launch the sixth X-37B mission in 2020.

And to think, I was once impressed by the thought of autonomous Uber rides

Secret Military Spaceplane Lands After Record-Breaking 780 Days in Orbit