Air Force’s X-37B Breaks Orbit Record

X-37 Orbital Test VehicleBoeing’s X-37B space plane broke its endurance record in orbit last month when it surpassed 470 days.

The U.S. Air Force launched the Orbital Test Vehicle 3 in December 2012 on a classified mission. The X-37B is a fourth of the size of NASA’s shuttle and is collecting data for the U.S. military. Operations for the mission are run by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Col.

The X-37B was launched into orbit aboard the Atlas 5 rocket from a pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. It will return to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., at an undisclosed date.

The record for the longest space flight had been set by the previous mission by the X-37B for the OTV-2 that remained in orbit for 469 days. The first flight for OTV-1 took place in 2010 and lasted 225 days.

The X-37B program is overseen by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. The U.S. military continues to expand space responsibilities as NASA’s budget shrinks.

Boeing’s space plane which measures only 29 feet and weighs 11,000 pounds is serving as a test bed for a number of classified experiments in space.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • Barry

    If only the AF was as successful with all its programs.

    • Nick

      Easy to declare success when no one has any idea what you’re doing or how much you’ve spent.

  • hibeam

    Its a fourth the size of NASA’s space shuttle. I wonder how cargo bay size and lift capability compare? I’ll bet the 1/4th ratio does not apply there.

    • tomatojuice

      I have read somewhere in the past that the cargo bay is the size of a pick up truck bed.

      • hibeam

        We could still haul a couple of black labs into space.

    • TomcatViP

      1/4th the size means 1/16th the surface and 1/64th the volume ;)

    • https://www.facebook.com/bc747 Richard Jones

      What a lot of folks don’t know is the lift to weight ratio for the STS system (Shuttle) was almost identical to the old X1 and X15 programs. What the AF learned in those programs naturally progressed to the NASA lifting body program and eventually the STS Shuttle program. A lot of ‘new’ designs really just continue with data from past programs and previous designs. So I wonder what the lift to weight ratio for the X-37B is. Probably close to the aircraft that came before it.

  • Ben

    Super espionage space bomber!

  • hibeam

    I think it dips into the upper atmosphere to change it’s ground track in a way that catches folks on the ground with their pants down. Or maybe it leaves behind little satellite critters that are to stealthy to notice?

  • 009

    Too bad it does’nt have info where the Malaysian airliner went.

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000454293363 Daniel Smith

    I knew the AF was up Something, I just can not belive that the space programe ended with The last shuttle. Keep going AF. Thank-you DT for the info.

  • Bernard

    Space drones baby! :-D

  • anthony

    It broke the shutttles record.

  • commenter

    What record was actually broken? There are many unmanned things that have been in orbit A LOT longer than 16 months.

    • Dylan

      The record was for an orbiter. As in, a self-sufficient, independently operating, 100% reusable space transport capable of reentry.

      The Soyuz ’emergency capsule’ docked with the ISS might have approached this record, but it doesn’t really count because it’s not out there on its own and it really isn’t an orbiter.

      • peters

        The orbiter is NOT 100 pct reusable. Case closed.

  • Hunter76

    So what is a purpose of these very long durations?

    I can’t believe it’s for biological experiments. Astronomy? NASA would be involved. Earth surveillance? What is the advantage over standard spy sats?

    My guess the space plane is surveilling other sats. Particularly spy sats will have low observability. The long time is to analyze these weak signatures, and slowly approach their orbits. The plane is brought down to update the equipment. Eventually the plane might bring one of these satellites back down for examination.

    • hibeam

      We are going to bring down someone else’s satellite? Won’t they get mad at us?

      • blight_

        Not if we hit the reset button.

        • Tiger

          Word today is Nasa is stopping work space ops with Russia.

      • Hunter76

        DoD would first bring down “dead” satellites. You can learn a lot from the hardware.

        Then the question comes, “Who took it down?”

        • Tiger

          Bay is too small.

          • Hunter76

            Of course it would need an arm to manipulate and with shears to cut off solar panels and shrouds. Maybe further disassembly in orbit?

            The arm would jettison itself to save cargo space for the trip back.

    • Aleksandar011

      China has successfully tested ASAT weapon in 2007, shutting down their old weather satellite (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_Chinese_anti-satellite_missile_test), so it’s necessary to have moving spy sat, one which can dodge missiles the way fighters does. Also X-37 can quickly switch from one area to another, unlike geostationary spy sats.

      • Hunter76

        Of course moving sats make sense. But why as space planes? Why the long duration flights?

    • John Deere

      Satellites have predictable orbits, thus they are vulnerable to attack.

      The X-37 can manoeuvre in orbit, land, refuel, change/update payload and be back on station quickly, and for long durations, if necessary. It can operate as an surveillance platform, or, with a change of payload a platform for munitions delivery.

      It’s a versatile piece of kit.

  • Hunter76

    Def Tech would do its readers a favor, if it would just publish a list of forbidden words.

    • hibeam

      Bossy is Verboten. Verboten! Carry on with your freedom.

      • Hunter76

        No, it isn’t. Otherwise we couldn’t read your post.

    • blight_

      Forbidden words do not exist. Posts that are deleted also do not exist.

  • oblatt22

    The great hope is that the X-37 is doing something amazing in secret because if its just doing testing like the defense department says it is then we have a very sad looking space program.

  • Bob Shepherd

    It would be nice, just once, if people who speculate and create conspiracy theories would actually do a little bit of homework about the purpose of the X-37B. This spacecraft has been built and is being tested for the establishment of a new and sixth military service (after the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard) tentatively referred to as the United States Space Force. Presently, the USAF is overseeing much of the activity surrounding the X-37B, a logical choice as its operational command arm. Much can be learned about America’s military designs and ambitions in space by “googling” US Space Command or Military Space Force. America has air and sea superiority around the world and, to maintain its military edge in space with nations like China, Russia, Iran, and India venturing into this area, the US intends to establish and maintain space superiority, also. I say bravo! Go for it!

    • Hunter76

      You could have written a much more interesting article than the author.

    • tiger

      That is the last thing we need…..

  • MMM

    Sounds to me as if they think they are still in SDI discussions from the Cold War – except that Russia is no longer America’s ally as it was during WWII – oh another space race. This time Russia and Ukraine; China and India definite possibilities,while millions remain starving, homeless and refugees.