Every year, billions of dollars are spent on space research. There is no denying that the research being conducted on space frontiers is fascinating, but for many, they don’t see how this field of science is relevant to our daily lives. When Hannah Rae Kerner, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation was asked what was the point of space study she responded, “Rather than ‘What’s the point?’ the question should be, ‘What does thinking about and understanding these problems mean for humans and for the evolution of humanity as a part of the universe?’” Still, justifying the billions of dollars that go into the many branches of space study is still hard to grasp. That is why The United States Space Force, in collaboration with NASA, began using a cost efficient reusable drone for space research missions.
Manufactured by the world’s leading aerospace company, Boeing, the X-37B is a reusable, unmanned Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). Standing 9ft 6in tall, stretching 29ft 3in in length, with a 14ft 11in wingspan the X-37B drone resembles a mini version of NASA’s Space Shuttle. Powered by gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries, the drone has a maximum takeoff weight of 11,000lbs and a 7X4ft payload space to carry an array of research gear. To launch the drone, it is encapsulated in an Atlas V rocket that carries the X-37B into low-earth orbit, 150 to 500 miles above the Earth. One launch was also done via SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. As reported by the U.S. Air Force, the X-37B OTV program is “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, uncrewed space test platform for the U.S. Air Force”
In terms of cost, the OTV program is not cheap. Each X-37B, of which there are rumored to be 2, costs around $200 million! The expendable Atlas V launch rocket also costs close to $200 million per launch, while the Falcon 9 only costs $62 million. However, compared to the estimated cost of each NASA Space Shuttle operation of $1.5 billion per flight, this drone program is saving millions of dollars while providing reliable data. And, because the X-37B is unmanned it poses no risk to our world’s most valuable asset, human life.
The Air Force has never released specific information on the drone’s missions, but they have announced that “The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” Some of the experiments being conducted on the most recent X-37B missions include the effects of radiation on seeds and turning solar energy into radio-frequency microwave energy that can then be transmitted to earth. Contained in the drone’s payload bay is also a satellite designed by U.S Air Force Academy cadets called the FalconSat-8 that will be remotely launched for further tests such as an electromagnetic propulsion system.
This current mission, the X-37B’s 6th mission being called OTV-6, was launched on May 17, 2020, at 9:14 AM by an Atlas V rocket at the SLC-41 Cape Canaveral, FL launch site. The drone is scheduled to spend several months in orbit before returning and landing on a runway much like a standard aircraft. OTV-1 through 4 were all launched by Atlas V rockets at Cape Canaveral SLC-41. OTV-5 was launched by the Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral’s famous Kennedy Space Center. Each of the drone’s missions has lasted longer than it’s predecessor. In order from OTV-1 through OTV-6, the drone’s time in orbit has been 224, 468, 674, 717, and an expectation breaking 779 days. Upon return, the drone is refurbished but ultimately is fully reusable.
Because the specific mission details of the X-37B have been classified, there has been some speculation that the drone is being used to weaponize space. However, the Air Force has adamantly denied this as it would be a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. But as Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I said, “The X-37 is a technology testbed, and as such, pushing the envelope is the mission.” By having cost efficient, nonexpendable technology like drones, discovering the possibilities of outer space and the impact it can have on humanity will be within our grasps.