The American space drone X-37B landed Saturday, November 12 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, after a record mission of 908 days in orbit, or 30 months. As with each of its missions, the US Air Force and US Space Force have revealed very little about the experiments carried out in space, away from most prying eyes, by its device. from Boeing’s secret Phantom Works labs. For its sixth mission, the X-37B was equipped for the first time with a service module allowing it to conduct even more experiments in orbit.
Four times smaller than the famous NASA shuttles retired in 2011, this remotely piloted device officially serves as a “testing platform” for spacecraft of the future. It tests navigation, thermal protection and advanced propulsion technologies. Ion engines, for example, should make it possible to use much less fuel, including for satellites, whose lifespan depends on the ability to stay in their orbit.
But the missions of the X37-B are not limited to science. Behind the scenes, experts in the military space field confide that the X37-B is one of the most active objects and therefore the most observed by the nations which are capable of it. “He doesn’t sit quietly in his corner!” It approaches foreign satellites, it emits waves and maneuvers in a surprising way, we are struggling to follow it, “explained to us, for example, in early 2022, a senior military official from a NATO country.
The drone is therefore also a laboratory for space warfare. In particular, it allows the American army to test unfriendly maneuvers on American targets or to mimic them on foreign targets, in order to convey a diplomatic message. “When the X37-B comes within a few hundred yards of a Russian spy satellite, that’s the White House talking to the Kremlin and saying ‘I can smash your toys too,'” added the ranking officer.