Sunday, November 20, 2022

Air Force X-37B Space Plane Completes Record Mission

The US Space Force unmanned space plane known as the X-37B completed a new record mission of 908 days in orbit, landing at the Shuttle Landing Strip on Kennedy Space Center November 12 at 5:22 AM Eastern.  The previous mission duration record for an X-37B was 780 days, so this mission was a quite a bit long longer; 128 days or over four months.  908 days is almost 2-1/2 years. 

The Space Force has two X-37B orbiters and sometimes both of them are in orbit. notes about this mission:

For its sixth mission, classified as Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6), it was launched vertically while perched atop an Atlas V rocket in May 2020. The space plane has now spent roughly 10 years in orbit across all of its missions, covering approximately 1.3 billion miles (2.1 billion km).

For their part, seems to want to know what the secret space plane is doing up there, but that's not likely.  They go down this road, saying:

The United States Space Force has revealed only a few morsels of information (opens in new tab) about the experiments conducted aboard the craft during its most recent flight. These include a test by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory that successfully harvested light from the sun before beaming it back to Earth as microwaves; and the deployment of an electromagnetically steered training satellite designed by U.S. Air Force cadets. NASA also provided an experiment, called Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS-2), that researched the effects of space on different materials. 

"Successfully harvested light from the sun before beaming it back to Earth as microwaves" has been a wild dream in my line of work for at least a couple of decades.  I attended a conference where that was talked about back nearly 20 years ago, and the idea had been around at that time.  We referred to it as the "Microwave Engineers Full Employment Program" because of the massive arrays of solar cells that would be required to convert solar power to DC and massive microwave radio transmitters that would be required to turn that DC power to radio power beamed back to earth.  Huge tracts of land would be required to mount the antennas that would receive this microwave energy and huge arrays of receivers to turn it into usable electricity.  

Huge transmitter and receiver arrays are necessary both for efficiency and safety.  It's like the multi-million dollar bird incinerators made of mirrors that direct sunlight reflections to a tower that generate electricity through various thermal mechanisms.  Except if microwave power is too high, it'll be a multi-million dollar bird incinerator that cooks them in mid-air.  Same thing with people in planes.

Because it's a flexible platform on classified missions, it's an easy target for anti-US forces to verbally attack.  Both Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, and Chinese military expert and commentator Song Zhongping claimed that the craft could be being used for spying or for carrying weapons of mass destruction.  They're also concerned that the craft’s ability to alter its orbit mid-flight gives it the ability to spy on other satellites or on Earth-based targets, as well as launch attacks on things in orbit. 

China also has a secret space plane, which was launched into orbit from a Long March 5B rocket on Aug. 4. 

The X-37B at Kennedy Space Center, November 12.  USSF Photo 



  1. Everything the military puts into space "could be used for spying or carrying weapons of mass destruction". That's the farging point.
    The politest response to the Russian and Chinese whining is and ought to be "STFU, and sit down, idiot!"

    1. Back during the Cold War, I remember someone making the observation that it was fueled by one single mindset. "If we have a weapon, it's defensive and we only think of defensive ways to use it. It they have a weapon, it's offensive and we only think of offensive ways to use it."

      Probably true for all of human history.

  2. Um, the payload of the secret spaceplane is, duh, secret.

    Very interesting in that someone is finally doing some long-term materials tests and beamed energy tests.

    Wonder what the military value of beamed microwave energy is? Could be fun times ahead.

    Well, that is, as long as the ChiComs and Russkies stop polluting the spaceways.

    1. Power for remote bases. At least that is the public story.

  3. Now what could a powerful highly focused microwave beam possibly be used for besides electrical power transmission?

    There is a lot of microwave technology from the 50s & 60s that seems to have disappeared from various internet sources several years ago. One of them was essentially a microwave version of a laser .

    I wonder what kind of inappropriate things could be done to the ionosphere with concentrated microwave energy?

    Just things that make you go hmmmmm.

    1. Now I'm puzzled. I assumed you meant a Maser, the direct ancestor of the laser, but a quick search shows a whole bunch of references. So what things are missing?

    2. Sounds to me like a good way to cook transmitters and antennae from orbit, or maybe to arrange convenient lightning strikes...

  4. An almost 3-year robotic mission? Well, at least a robot will not have moral concerns about it's programming.

  5. In 1977, I distinctly remember a team from JPL showing to the class the schematics of the design to capture solar radiation (visible and IR) to beam to earf as microwaves. I remember the dummy next to me becoming agitated by the thought of being cooked.

    By the time of that lecture, I had already read of it in a NASA publication which regularly detailed various projects.