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The X-37B goes to Mars

After 675 days in space, the Air Force’s reusable X-37B mini-shuttle successfully returned to Earth today, completing its second flight in space.

There has been a lot of speculation about the secret payloads that the two X-37B’s have carried into space. The Air Force has been very tight-lipped about this, though they have said this:

“The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space, and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” Air Force officials wrote in on online X-37B fact sheet. “Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing,” they added.

The obvious advantage of the X-37B is that it allows the Air Force to test these new technologies in space, then bring them back to Earth for detailed analysis.

However, I think the most important engineering knowledge gained from this flight will not be from the payload, but from the X-37B itself.

The X-37B that landed on Earth today now holds the record for the longest flight in space by a spacecraft that has then been safely returned to Earth. No other reusable spacecraft has ever been in space that long and gotten back to Earth. In fact, no manned spacecraft, even the disposable kind, has ever been in space that long and returned to Earth. The longest an Apollo capsule ever flew was six months on the last Skylab mission, while the longest the Russians have kept a Soyuz capsule in space before return was I think eight months. Previous space stations burned up in the ocean, so we were unable to study them after their sojourn in orbit. And shuttles could never stay in space more than 30 days at the very most.

The twenty-two month mission of this X-37B was long enough to get to Mars and back. Thus, in many ways this spaceship simulated a Mars mission, and its post-flight condition will tell us a great deal about what works and what doesn’t work on future vessels intended for such long missions, information invaluable for building interplanetary spaceships.

The Air Force and Boeing engineers that are now inspecting the X-37B are certainly aware of this and are likely drooling with glee at what they are learning. I just hope the knowledge eventually percolates out into the civilian aerospace community.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

 
The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

 
He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

 
Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

9 comments

  • Edward

    “No other reusable spacecraft has ever been in space that long and gotten back to Earth. In fact, no other manned spacecraft, even the disposable kind, has ever been in space that long and returned to Earth.”

    Although your statement is true, the unmanned Long Duration Endurance Facility spent 69 months. However, it was intended to come back much sooner (the Challenger disaster delayed its retrieval), and returned, for study, a variety of materials.

    The X-37B is certainly adding to our knowledge of the behavior of materials after long exposure to space (e.g degradation), and there may be other research being done with it, as well.

    I suspect that, as with the Air Force’s aviation research, their space research will become known to those who need it most in civilian companies.

  • DK Williams

    I know a cover story when I see one. Some materials research was probably undertaken, but this was tertiary to its main mission. The length of the flight has other implications besides materials degradation.

  • B Lewis

    Cover for what?

  • DK Williams

    One could make a reasonable guess based on orbital trajectory.

  • B Lewis

    A 300 nm circular orbit at roughly 43 degrees inclination? I’m not sure what I’m looking for here.

  • LDEF was certainly in space longer, but it was not a spacecraft designed to do work in space, but a housing for placing materials on its outer surface so that engineers could see how they responded to the environment of space.

  • Vladislaw

    Would the hold be large enough for a small sat that could go visit other sats for picture taking etc … warfare intervention of space assets?

  • Daniel L. May

    i believe this ship has been traveling between mars and earth for about 4 missions so far. it really looks like the military is on mars. Since the coming out with the Air Force UFO footage with the admitence that they dont know what they are in the video and new reports of vehicles built not on this earth from the New York Times. I say our military is on mars at this very moment. just remember that the US Government does not tell us what they are doing till they think its ok to do so. Secret Missions to mars, OTV-2 05 March 2011 468 days 14 hours
    OTV-3 11 December 2012 674 days 22 hours
    OTV-4 20 May 2015 717 days 20 hours
    OTV-5 7 September 2017 780 days
    ALL are long enough to go there and back!
    Think!

  • Rose

    These days I can’t tell satire from seriousness half the time.

    Daniel, if you are serious and if you are open to additional information, then you might want to check out reports from the relatively normal civilian skywatching satellite observers who spend their evenings with binocular or telescopes tracking objects such as the X-37B. I don’t follow them closely, but I do see periodic mention on the NasaSpaceFlight.com boards when they loose track of an X-37B when it makes one of its tricky plane change maneuvers, and then again when they spot it in its new orbit.

  • Neil Wilson

    Daniel – I echo your observations- I’ve had similar suspicions about the purpose – if you check the timings of the launches, they occur just a few weeks before Mars closest approach.

    Rose – of course there are confirmed observations of X37 around earth, how else would they create a smoke screen?

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