The Air Force’s mysterious spy spaceplane, the X-37B, is back on Earth after spending more than two years in orbit. It’s still unknown exactly what the vehicle is for, but the Air Force admits that the spacecraft did carry a number of small satellites into space during this mission.
The X-37B landed at 3:51AM ET on Sunday, October 27th, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The touchdown brought an end to the spaceplane’s fifth journey into space and the longest flight yet for the vehicle. The X-37B launched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on September 7th, 2017, and then went on to spend a total of 780 days in orbit. That’s a new record for the spacecraft, eclipsing the vehicle’s last stay in space, which lasted 718 days.
“The safe return of this spacecraft, after breaking its own endurance record, is the result of the innovative partnership between government and industry,” Gen. David L. Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, said in a statement. “The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.”
The first flight of the X-37B took place in 2010, and exactly what the vehicle does up in space has been a mystery ever since. However, the Air Force has dropped a few hints from time to time. Resembling a mini-Space Shuttle, the X-37B is known to test out technologies and experiments meant to last for long periods of time in space. And this is the first time the X-37B has seemingly deployed unknown small satellites into orbit.
The statement that this @usairforce X-37 flight deployed small satellites is alarming, since the US has not reported those deployments in its UN Registration Convention submissions. This would be the first time that either the USA or Russia has blatantly flouted the Convention. https://t.co/mpLWuvsECV
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) October 27, 2019
That has angered some in the space community. The Air Force did say that the X-37B would be taking up these small satellites when the vehicle launched in 2017. However, some space industry analysts have pointed out that none of these spacecraft have been officially cataloged by the Air Force. The satellites were also not registered with the United Nations, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard and space tracking expert. He argues that would violate the UN’s Registration Convention — which requires countries to tell the UN exactly what they’re sending into space. It’s possible that the satellites remained attached to the X-37B for its entire trip, which would skirt around the issue. But ultimately, we don’t know what became of them.
In the meantime, the X-37B will likely get a checkup from the Air Force. There are two currently operational X-37Bs, and one of them is set to fly again in early 2020.