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What is Boeing X-37B? The secret US Air Force plane that spent over 700 days in space

International Business Times logo International Business Times 8/05/2017 Agamoni Ghosh
Handout out the U.S. Airforce's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 after landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral: The U.S. military's experimental X-37B space plane landed on Sunday at NASA�s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a classified mission that lasted nearly two years, the Air Force said.U.S. Air Force/via Plane lands after secret, two-year mission

Slideshow provided by Reuters

The US Air Force's Boeing X-37B, often dubbed as a mystery space vehicle, returned to Earth on 7 May, after spending 718 days in orbital Earth and touched down at the Kennedy Space Center's orbiter runway.

This was the X-37B programme's fourth successful test, but is significant as for the first the time, the plane landed at the Kennedy Space Center, taking forward a long-sought programmatic evolution to combine both launch and landing operations at a single home port.

This was the X-37B programme's fourth successful test, but is significant as for the first the time, the plane landed at the Kennedy Space Center, taking forward a long-sought programmatic evolution to combine both launch and landing operations at a single home port.

X-37B Space plane © US Air Force X-37B Space plane

The military took to Twitter to announce the feat and maintained that the X-37B was sent to space for test pertaining to performance of future space missions. However, speculation has been rife about the secret space plane for years now, with many saying it is a weaponised space tool put by the US in orbital Earth for various activities like spying, destroying other satellites. It is even said to be capable of releasing weapons at targeted areas on Earth.

IBTimes UK brings you all that you need to know about this spaceplane and its mission.

What is the Boeing X-37B?

Alternatively known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the X-37B is a reusable unmanned spacecraft that is booted into space by a launch vehicle and then re-enters the Earth's atmosphere as a spaceplane.

Technical Specifications: The 4,990kg spaceplane measures 8.8 metres long and has a small cargo bay same as the size of a pickup truck bed. It is powered by gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries and its wingspan measures approximately 4.5 metres. It has only one manoeuvring engine that burns hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide.

The X-37 programme was started by Nasa in 1999 which initially planned to construct two space vehicles: an Approach and Landing Test Vehicle (ALTV) and an Orbital Vehicle. However, in 2004 the project was transferred to the US military, specifically its research wing, Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), famously known for running an array of classified projects. Although Nasa's objective to build an Orbital Vehicle did not materialise, it nevertheless served as the base for what is the X-37B now.

Why was it sent to space?

After Darpa finished the ALTV part of the programme, the first flight drop test was conducted on 7 April, 2006, at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The actual space orbital was launched four years later, on 22 April, 2010 using an Atlas V rocket

When quizzed about the purpose of the mission, neither Nasa nor the military have given clear answers except for harping on the fact that it is for future space research. An X-37B fact sheet provided by the Air Force defines the primary objectives of the X-37B as twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies advancement for America's future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.

Rumours and speculation about the mission's real purpose

The secrecy surrounding the mission, however, resulted in rumours on the US' real intention to put the spaceplane out there. Shortly after its maiden orbital launch in 2010, SpaceDaily wrote a lengthy feature suggesting the X037B could be a "Space Bomber" designed to destroy enemy satellites, or act as a "launch vehicle" that could deliver bombs or missiles to any part of the planet.

Some experts, however, dismissed these possibilities saying the plane is too small and not manoeuvrable enough for such work. Some theorists also claimed that while it may not be able to destroy satellites, it may be deploying its own. Some conspiracy theorists have opined it is used for spying on China and other countries like North Korea.

Latest theories, however, suggest the vessel is testing out an experimental propulsion system. The X-37B programme is currently run by the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office and till date two different X-37B vehicles have completed a total of four missions, known as OTV-1, OTV-2, OTV-3 and OTV-4.

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