The United States Air Force’s X-37B space plane has successfully completed its record-setting sixth mission.
Today (November 12) at 5:22 a.m. EST, the robotic X-37B landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. With 908 days in orbit, the wingless craft had been in space longer than any previous X-37B mission by more than four months.
This was the first mission for the X-37B program of the United States Space Force, and it was the first time that a service module had been carried by the Boeing-built space plane.
Boeing Space and Launch Senior Vice President Jim Chilton said in a statement, “With the service module added, this was the most we’ve ever carried to orbit on the X-37B, and we’re proud to have been able to prove out this new and flexible capability for the government and its industry partners.”
The X-37B is only 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and looks like NASA’s decommissioned space shuttle, but it is significantly smaller. The space shuttle was piloted and measured 122 feet (37 meters) in length; this is another key distinction between it and the X-37B, which operates on its own.
It’s believed that Boeing supplied two X-37Bs to the United States Space Force. Together, they have flown six orbital missions, all of which have the acronym OTV for “Orbital Test Vehicle.”
- OTV-1: Launched on April 22, 2010, and landed on Dec. 3, 2010 (duration 224 days).
- OTV-2: March 5, 2011, to June 16, 2012 (468 days).
- OTV-3: Dec. 11, 2012, to Oct. 17, 2014 (674 days).
- OTV-4: May 20, 2015, to May 7, 2015 (718 days).
- OTV-5: Sept. 7, 2017, to Oct. 27, 2019 (780 days).
- OTV-6: May 17, 2020, to Nov. 12, 2022 (908 days).
According to Space Force and Boeing, the X-37B’s primary function is as a testing platform, allowing scientists to observe the performance of payloads in microgravity and then analyze the data back on Earth.
Chilton remarked that the X-37B had “shattered records” since its first launch in 2010 and given the United States “an unrivaled capability to rapidly test and integrate new space technologies.”
The Space Force does not release information about the X-37B’s orbit or when each OTV mission will end, and it is likely that many of the payloads it carries are also classified.
Though some of the X-37B’s hardware is classified, military officials have been forthcoming about some of it. It is well known that OTV-6 evaluated the Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module developed by the United States Naval Research Laboratory.
It is planned to use this device, roughly the size of a pizza box, to convert solar energy into microwaves that will be beamed to Earth. They hope their efforts will make space-based solar power a more viable option in the future.
An Unidentified Space Force Plane Flew Its Longest Mission Ever
After its sixth and longest mission to date, the X-37B, the uncrewed orbital test vehicle of the United States Space Force, returned to Earth with a series of loud booms that could be heard all the way down to Florida.
The Boeing spacecraft landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida early on Saturday morning, ending a 908-day mission in space.
According to a Space Force press release, NASA conducted a number of experiments during the flight.
The service module, which the Space Force describes as “a ring attached to the vehicle’s rear expanding the number of experiments that can be hosted during a mission,” was also used for the first time on this mission, making it the first X-37B flight to do so.
Covert Spaceplane from the Air Force Touches Down After a Spaceflight of Over Two Years
Beyond that, however, the X-37B’s missions are shrouded in mystery. Few details have been made public by officials about the experiments conducted on the most recent flight.
A solar-to-microwave energy conversion experiment was conducted in conjunction with the Naval Research Laboratory. There was also an effort to see how long different materials would last in space. In order to investigate crop production and “the establishment of permanently inhabited bases in space,” a third experiment was designed to examine the long-term effects of space radiation on seeds.
About X – 37B Program
Orbital Mission Control for the X-37B is located at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, and the Air Force Rapid Capability Office manages the program overall.
Boeing’s Phantom Works is responsible for its spacecraft production. Exploration of Space OTV-1 (Orbital Test Vehicle 1), OTV-2 (Orbital Test Vehicle 2), OTV-3 (Orbital Test Vehicle 3), and OTV-4 (Orbital Test Vehicle 4) were the names of the five missions flown by two different X-37B vehicles.
The Atlas V rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, successfully launched four missions. Launched in March 2011, OTV-2 eventually made it back to Earth in June 2012.
The equipment on OTV-3 is identical to what flew on the December 2017 OTV-1 mission. On March 25, 2017, OTV-4 broke the previous record set by OTV-3, which had been in operation since May 20, 2015.
On May 7, 2017, after 718 days in space, the OTV-4 mission ended with a soft landing to orbit. First X-37B spacecraft to touch down at Kennedy Space Center in Florida’s Cape Canaveral.
On September 7, 2017, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA’s historic Launch Complex 39A at KSC in Florida to begin the OTV-5 mission.
According to an Air Force statement, the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader experiment was designed to “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies” and ran for 780 days (another record) to do just that.
NASA’s Role In X – 37B Program
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States government responded by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to conduct research and development on vehicles.
Founded in 1915, it was based on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). In the early years of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, NASA was in full operation.
It was his suggestion that the United States send a man to the moon by the decade’s end in the 1960s. Neil Armstrong, a U.S. astronaut, was the first man to set foot on the moon in 1969 thanks to the Apollo program, which was created for just that purpose.
Later unmanned missions—Viking, Mariner, Voyager, and Galileo—explored planets and moons throughout the solar system. NASA is divided into four distinct mission divisions:
The Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Johnson Space Center in Houston,
Texas and the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia are all associated with this institution. The headquarters of NASA is located in the nation’s capital.
Concerns that the X-37B plane and its payload are a secret space weapon designed to intercept or destroy the satellites of competing countries have been fueled by the mystery surrounding them.
Its stated purpose has always been to put other next-generation satellite technologies or new sensors through their paces in space to see how they perform in that environment and how well they can hold everything.
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