WATCH: US Secretive Spaceplane That Was Dubbed To ‘Spy On China’s 1st Space Station’

A video of the US’ veiled spaceplane X-37B was posted by a twitter user showing the plane’s cargo bay doors opening and revealing packed solar panels deployed inside the plane. Very little is known about Pentagon’s secretive spaceplane.

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The user who posted the said that the clip was cropped from a Boeing promotional video shown at the Air Force Association’s annual convention.

The 29 feet long space plane weighing 11,000 pounds is launched using United Launch Alliance Atlas V (501) and SpaceX Falcon 9. The mission described by the US Air Force is to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.

However, Caleb Larson of the National Interest said that the program was started under NASA but was transferred to the Department of Defence (DoD) in the 2000s.

“This transfer has led to speculation that the X-37 program is actually a military project aimed at spying on China’s first space station, the Tiangong-1. Alternative theories, citing the X-37’s payload capability, posit that the X-37 program could be used for spying on various satellites in space, or for developing and testing space-based weapons,” he wrote.

Boeing X-37B inside payload fairing before launch.jpg
Boeing X-37B inside payload fairing before launch. Via Wikipedia

In 2015, the Air Force revealed that the technologies being tested include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high-temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.

It is a solar-powered, unmanned spacecraft designed based on the now-scrapped US Space Shuttle program. Similar to space shuttles, X-37B is a reusable spacecraft and returns to Earth once its mission in space is completed. 

Tyler Rogoway of the Drive explained that the video provides a better idea of how voluminous the bay is for the size of the craft and how its solar panels and radiators fit inside.

“Like the Space Shuttle Orbiter, a large portion of the spaceplane’s design includes empty volume. Once the solar panel system is deployed via its integrated arm, there is plenty of room to store various smaller payloads or even a relatively larger unitary payload.”

Pentagon conducted its sixth launch of the spaceplane on May 17, 2020. The fifth mission was the longest one lasting around two years and the duration of these missions have been increasing. It is unclear what the duration of the sixth one is.

The Air Force said that through five completed missions, the X-37B has spent a total of 2,865 days on orbit, successfully checking out the X-37B’s reusable flight, reentry and landing technologies as well as operating experiments to benefit the national space community.

The video came days after China successfully completed its small reusable spacecraft mission. India and Russia have also been pursuing similar capabilities.