In case you didn’t know, the United States Air Force has its own Earth-orbiting space plane, dubbed X-37B.
Image Credit: United States Air Force
While it looks a lot like the space shuttle, we can assure you it’s very different, because not only is it a lot smaller with a wingspan of only 15 feet compared to 78 feet, but it’s unmanned and has to be carried up into space inside of a payload that gets lifted into Earth orbit by rockets.
The whole setup, which was designed in a collaboration between the United States Air Force and Boeing, is different from the space shuttle, and such is obvious when you look at the way it’s deployed.
X-37B was launched on its latest mission on May 20th, 2015 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. It has been in space ever since, simply orbiting the world. While its intentions are very much classified, it has been in space now for well over 600 days, and soon, it will break a record set by the Orbital Test Vehicle-3 (OTV-3) mission.
This current mission, known as OTV-4, just needs to spend 674 days in space to break that record, and from the looks of things, it’s on track to meet that record. Nevertheless, because the plans for OTV-4 are classified, no one knows for sure if it will be forced to land beforehand.
What we do know is OTV-4 is the second time this particular X-37B space plane has went into space. It went there once, and made a return landing, and was sent back into space again on a second mission.
According to commentary obtained by Space.com from the United States Air Force, X-37B is used for “testing things” in space. While the very idea of what is being tested is very much unknown, it is known that NASA plays a role in the project. The United States Air Force also says that X-37B helps us further our research into resuable space vehicle technology, which is a cost-efficient way to help make space transporation approachable.
It should be interesting to see just how long OTV-4 will remain in space, and more importantly, whether or not the United States Air Force ever reveals what its purpose serves.