Boeing X-37B. An experiment or a threat in space?

Since 2010, the United States has been testing the Boeing X-37B experimental spacecraft. Currently, one of the experimental machines is making another test flight, which has been going on for more than two years. Work on the X-37B is conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy, and only a few fragmentary data is published. All this leads to serious fears and questions that remain unanswered.

X-37B while in orbit, NASA demo

According to known data

The development of the future X-37 project started in 1999 and was carried out by the Boeing Phantom Works division with the active participation of NASA and the US Air Force. A few years later, NASA transferred the project to the DARPA agency, as a result of which the main works were classified. Since then, new information about the project has not become publicly available too often.

It is known that in 2005, developers began atmospheric testing of a prototype X-37A. After such checks, the project was finalized, resulting in the preparation for full-fledged tests of the X-37B product in orbit. The first flight of this kind with the designation OTV-1 began on April 22 2010 and lasted more than 220 days. Then they spent several more flights, the duration of which was constantly growing. Two experimental machines participated in the tests.

7 September 2017 was the fifth launch of X-37B. This flight continues to this day; the device has been in orbit for more than 730 days, and its return has not yet been reported. So far, this flight is the longest. Previously, information appeared about the next launch, scheduled for December this year. Probably, before the start of the OTV-6 mission, the previous one will be completed.

The reusable X-37B was created in the interests of the US Air Force, which affected the privacy mode. However, the air force revealed the most general information about the objectives of the project. The X-37B program is experimental and is designed to test technologies in the field of reusable unmanned spacecraft for the Air Force. Using the built prototypes, it was planned to check the design and on-board equipment, as well as conduct a series of studies using this or that payload.

The first prototype X-37B before launching the OTV-1, 13 on April 2010. Photo by US Air Force

According to various sources, the X-37B currently under test has a length of about 9 m with a wingspan of 4,5 m. The maximum starting weight is less than 5 t, the payload is approx. 1 t. The necessary cargo is placed in the central compartment of the device with a volume of several cubic meters. Launches were carried out using Atlas V 501 launch vehicles (4 launch) and Falcon 9 launch vehicles (1 launch).

The carriers launched the experimental equipment into low Earth orbit with an altitude of 300-400 km, mainly near the equator. During long flights, the X-37B performed various maneuvers, changed their orbits, etc. There is information about the dumping of the payload. Also, foreign media reported on attempts to conduct intelligence and solve other special problems.

Rumors and reality

Various information regularly appears about a particular X-37B operation in orbit, but for obvious reasons they do not receive official confirmation from DARPA or the US Air Force. Nevertheless, such messages together with available information about the project lead to the appearance of the most interesting and daring versions.

At the beginning of 2012, during the second flight, appeared in the foreign press news on the approach of X-37B to the Chinese space station "Tiangong-1." This was probably an attempt to observe foreign technology. However, the United States did not confirm this information, and different parameters of the orbits could completely exclude the possibility of rapprochement.

The device after returning from its first flight, December 3 2010. Photo by US Air Force

The presence of the cargo compartment and the ability to carry various equipment, both fixed and dumped in flight, determine the basic capabilities of the X-37B. It also contributes to the emergence of various versions and forecasts, some of which may well correspond to reality.

Main Features

X-37B is a reusable aircraft-type spacecraft, which gives it a number of characteristic features. First of all, this is a simpler launch into orbit and return from it. In addition, the device can be used as a vehicle to output and return a given payload. In this regard, the new X-37B is similar to the old Space Shuttle, but is smaller and has a lower payload.

An important feature of the X-37B is the already proven ability to work in orbit for a long time. The first flight lasted more than 220 days, and the duration of the fifth exceeded two years. At the same time, during all test flights, the devices not only remained in orbit, but changed the trajectory and solved different problems.

A device with similar potential can be used to carry out reconnaissance in different areas. In this case, it must carry the necessary optical or radio equipment and be displayed in the required orbit. Depending on the tasks set, the X-37B can complete the mission and quickly return to Earth or remain in orbit for a long time, performing new commands.

Completion of the fourth mission, May 7 2017. Photo by US Air Force

According to some estimates, the experimental X-37Bs have already been used to launch compact satellites of unknown purpose into orbit. In addition, they are supposedly able to "catch" small-sized objects in space and bring to Earth. Such opportunities can be used to maintain the operability of the space constellation. Also, it becomes possible to quickly deploy a small group of satellites of the necessary purpose in given orbits. For example, this may be additional means of communication over the war zone.

A payload theoretically could be weapons for various purposes. X-37B can be used as an orbital bomber or as an interceptor of space technology. However, the implementation of such opportunities is prohibited by international agreements. In addition, a reusable spacecraft may not be the best platform for weapons.

Defense issues

The X-37B spacecraft is positioned as an experimental vehicle and a demonstrator of the technologies necessary for the further development of US Air Force equipment. However, even in this quality, the device has special characteristics and capabilities, which are cause for concern. The presence of such equipment raises the question of opposing it to other states.

In this context, the means of tracking outer space are of key importance. Developed countries have the necessary optical and radar systems capable of monitoring objects in different orbits. Apparently, the design of the X-37B does not use stealth technologies, which simplifies its detection and maintenance.

When using the device as a space reconnaissance, existing and well-established protection methods should be used. First of all, this is a competent organization of military events: all basic actions should be carried out between the passage of reconnaissance spacecraft. In addition, electronic warfare can be used to protect troops or other objects from excessive attention.

Preparing for the flight OTV-5, 2017. Photo by Boeing

In some situations, you may need not just opposition or suppression, but a complete defeat of the spacecraft. This task is the most difficult in the context of defense. To combat the X-37B or similar targets, anti-satellite weapons, such as special anti-aircraft missiles, are needed. There is scattered information about the development of such weapons in different countries. There have also been several cases of the use of missiles for real orbital targets.

Multi-purpose problem

Even in the existing configuration of the flying laboratory, the Boeing X-37B spacecraft is a very interesting and promising model, quite capable of solving some real problems. In this case, we are talking about developing technologies that can later be used in new projects of equipment with higher characteristics.

In the United States, X-37B itself as well as future models created on its basis are already highly appreciated. The characteristic features of this technique will give the US Air Force new capabilities of great interest in different contexts. At the same time, even an experimental sample causes concern of third countries, which the Pentagon considers as a good sign.

In the case of the Boeing X-37B project, one can observe a curious situation. Not much is known about this development, but the available data is a serious cause for concern. The US Air Force intends to develop new technologies and take advantage of all of them. Other countries, accordingly, need to take this into account and prepare for new threats.
Ryabov Kirill
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