Post-landing of OTV-5 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.
Courtesy Photo 45th Space Wing Public Affairs

Last October, that hush-hush U.S. Air Force X-37B robotic space plane program chalked up a long duration milestone. During the Orbital Test Vehicle-5 (OTV-5) space trek, the winged mini-shuttle may have released a trio of satellites.

That’s the word from Bob Christy, founder and editor of the informative website,

X-37B Air Force space plane.
Credit: Boeing/Inside Outer Space Screen Grab

There are no details available as to what duties the satellites perform or their orbits. They are now catalogued as:

USA 295 – 45169/2017-052C

USA 296 – 45170/2017-052D

USA 297 – 45171/2017-052E

Under the radar

“The news was slipped-out under the radar,” Christy told Inside Outer Space. “They simply appeared in the SpaceTrack catalogue without any fanfare and with no orbit data and no indication whether they are still in orbit.”

Post-landing technicians tend OTV-5 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.
Courtesy Photo 45th Space Wing Public Affairs

“I think their (slightly illegal under international obligations) omission in the first place is something the powers that be would rather not mention,” Christy says. “Obviously the satellites couldn’t be named in the proper sequence because subsequent USA numbers had already been taken up.”

Christy thinks, but others disagree he admits, that they were more likely to have been released from the Falcon 9 booster that rocketed the X-37B into Earth orbit on September 7, 2017.

OTV-5 circled Earth for 780 days after launch, coming to a tarmac touchdown at Kennedy Space Center on October 27, 2019, breaking the program’s own record by being in orbit for more than two years.

Mission objectives

In a post-landing statement, Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director said that the X37B/OTV program continues to push the envelope as the world’s only reusable space vehicle. The OTV-5 mission “successfully completed all mission objectives,” he said, “as well as providing a ride for small satellites.”

Christy says that, unfortunately the “…providing a ride for small satellites…” in the post-landing USAF press statement is ambiguous.

“Why take up space inside OTV that would then go unused for two years when a meaningful bit of science or technology could have been fitted in there? Especially true when Falcon 9 has the capacity to do the job and small satellite carriers are available for it,” Christy adds.


“Something else I picked up on and can’t find any contemporary mention of is that the final orbit of the Falcon 9 was significantly different from OTV. There are pointers to fact that OTV was released at launch into the 54°.5 inclination orbit in which it was eventually discovered,” Christy notes.

Skywatcher and satellite tracker, Ralf Vandebergh of the Netherlands, has released a new image of an over flight of the U.S. Air Force secretive X-37B space plane, also known as Orbital Test Vehicle – 5.
Credit: Ralf Vandebergh

A notice to airmen (NOTAM) for the Falcon 9 re-entry above the Indian Ocean about 5 hours after shows that it descended from an orbit at 63° inclination, Christy points out. “There’s not enough data to work out exactly what maneuver(s) got it there. I suspect it was a SpaceX test rather than a USAF mission requirement.”

The three satellites could be orbiting at either inclination, Christy says. “If released from Falcon 9 then they were in separate orbits within three hours. If released from OTV, it would probably be a bit longer. I would have thought time would have been taken to check out the space plane systems and settle it into orbit first.”

When OTV-5 was launched, the Air Force noted that the mission was launched into, and would be landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelope.

Cargo test experiment

On the most recent clandestine mission of the space plane, all that’s known according to Air Force officials is that one payload flying on OTV-5 was the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, or ASETS-II.

Developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), this cargo was to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes for long duration stints in the space environment.

According to AFRL, the payload’s three primary science objectives of ASETS-II were to measure the initial on-orbit thermal performance, to measure long duration thermal performance, and to assess any lifetime degradation.

Credit: Boeing

Drives them nuts

It is always touch and go regarding what can/cannot be said about the X-37B spaceplane program.

However, former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson laid out some basic details of the X-37B’s mission during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum in 2019.

“The Air Force has acknowledged that we own a space plane, the X-37 – looks like a small version of the shuttle, but it’s unmanned. One of the things that’s fascinating about that space plane is that it can do an orbit that looks like an egg, and when it’s close to the Earth it is close enough to the atmosphere to turn where it is, which means our adversaries don’t know – and that happens on the far side of the Earth from our adversaries – they don’t know where it’s going to come up next, and we know that drives them nuts,” Wilson said.

Following OTV-5’s landing, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, said: “The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.”


Go to this video clip of former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson at the 2019 Aspen Security Forum. X-37B discussed at roughly 17:38:

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