The 2012 screen adaptation of the game Battleship, now available for streaming on Peacock, introduced the idea of aliens being involved in the game. In the movie, when alien spaceships arrive and descend into the Pacific, a military operation is initiated to prevent the conquering aliens from calling for reinforcements.
In reality, the United States military has its own secretive space activities, primarily carried out using the X-37B space plane. Reusable spacecraft play a crucial role in modern space travel by reducing the cost per flight. Recovering and reusing rocket stages is one aspect of this, while reusable vehicles like the X-37B are another. For over a decade, various government agencies in the United States have operated semi-secret reusable space planes.
The X-37 program originated at NASA in 1999, but by 2004, it came under the control of DARPA. Two years later, the United States Air Force introduced their version called the X-37B or Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). In 2019, responsibility for the X-37B shifted to the United States Space Force.
Built by Boeing, the design of the X-37B is reminiscent of the Space Shuttle but at a quarter of the scale. It is an unmanned vehicle measuring approximately 29 feet in length, 9.5 feet in height, and has a wingspan of about 15 feet. Its payload bay is only 7 feet by 4, roughly the size of a pickup truck bed. Originally, the plan was for it to be launched from the Shuttle’s payload bay and deployed like a small spaceship.
The X-37B’s specifications, payloads, and activities are largely classified, but some information has been released by Boeing. The spacecraft is equipped with automated deorbit and landing systems, constructed using lightweight composite materials instead of aluminum, and features updated heat shielding and insulation. Since its first launch in 2010, the existence of the X-37B has been known, and some of its missions have been disclosed. However, many details remain hidden due to their classified nature. Currently, the X-37B has completed six missions and is preparing for its seventh.
The upcoming seventh mission of the X-37B is scheduled for launch on December 7. Unlike previous missions, it will be lifted off from Cape Canaveral using a more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket. Previous launches utilized SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9 or Atlas V rockets. The mission statement from the Space Force revealed that it will involve operating in new orbital regimes, hence the need for the Falcon Heavy to achieve a higher orbit. The X-37B will also carry experiments related to space domain awareness technologies and the effects of radiation.
General B. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations, stated that Mission 7 demonstrates the United States Space Force’s commitment to innovation and pushing the boundaries in the space domain. While most of the payloads and experiments aboard the X-37B remain a mystery, one known experiment is NASA’s Seeds-2, which will expose seeds to space radiation during a long-duration flight. Understanding the impact of the space environment on plants could have implications for future crewed space missions. The Space Force remains tight-lipped about the other activities of the X-37B, but it is unlikely to involve anti-alien weaponry.
In conclusion, while the concept of aliens in Battleship may be fictional, the real-world X-37B space plane operated by the United States military demonstrates the ongoing advancements and secretive activities in space exploration and technology.