The Air Force’s not-so-secret secret space shuttle just returned to Earth after doing… something
In 2010, the United States Air Force launched its first super secret space shuttle into orbit, the X37B. Of course, it wasn’t all that secret given that the Air Force was more than happy to confirm its existence and its landing was highly visible, but it was still secret-ish.
The Air Force has confirmed that there are two X37B spacecraft, both of which have spent huge amounts of time in space – record breaking times. On May 7, 2017, the X37B returned to Earth, landing at Kennedy Space Center after spending 718 days in space. That’s a record for a ship that returned to Earth, beating the previous records set by the X37B of 674 days and 469 days. There may be others that we don’t know about, but those times are confirmed.
There have been satellites in orbit for decades and the International Space Station will celebrate its 20-year anniversary in November 2018, but no object has spent as much time in space and then re-entered safely. Not even close.
While the Air Force hasn’t had any issue with people knowing about the existence of the X37B – in fact, it seems to be happy to let others know it is that technologically advanced – what the secret shuttle actually does remains classified.
The X37B measures 29 feet in length with a 15-foot wingspan, making it a quarter of the size of the old shuttle. It is controlled remotely and contains a small cargo bay just four feet by seven feet. It also contains a deployable solar array that allows it to recharge and remain in orbit. The big question is what is its purpose?
The Air Force is perfectly fine letting other countries freak out, knowing that it has the capability to send a shuttle into orbit, but its mission and payloads are classified. The obvious theory is that it is being used for surveillance, but that is just a guess. The only With that said, the Air Force did tweet that more info is coming soon.
— U.S. Air Force (@usairforce) May 7, 2017
The Air Force shuttle is not the next stage in space exploration, at least not when it comes to sending people into orbit – it’s too small. Companies like SpaceX, Blue Horizon, and Boeing (which also built the X37B) are leading that charge, while NASA is working on its own spacecraft to go to Mars and beyond.
Still, the X37B is a step forward for space exploration. At least, we think so.