The record-breaking sixth mission for the US Army’s X-37B spaceplane is finally over.
The robotic X-37B landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida today (November 12) at 5:22 a.m. EST (10:22 GMT). The winged vehicle had spent 908 days in orbit, more than four months longer than any previous X-37B flight.
The Boeing-built spaceplane also carried a service module on the newly completed mission, a first for the US Space Force’s X-37B program.
“With the added service module, this was the most we have ever carried into orbit on the X-37B, and we are proud to have been able to prove this flexible new capability for government and industry partners.” , Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing Space and Launch, said in a statement today (opens in a new tab).
Related: US Space Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane: 10 Surprising Facts
The X-37B resembles NASA’s now-retired space shuttle, but is much smaller, measuring just 29 feet (8.8 meters) from nose to tail. The space shuttle was 122ft (37m) long and manned – another key difference, as the X-37B is self-contained.
The US Space Force is believed to have two X-37B vehicles, both supplied by Boeing. To date, the duo have flown six orbital missions, each known as OTV (Orbital Test Vehicle):
- OTV-1: Launched April 22, 2010 and landed December 3, 2010 (duration 224 days).
- OTV-2: from March 5, 2011 to June 16, 2012 (468 days).
- OTV-3: From December 11, 2012 to October 17, 2014 (674 days).
- OTV-4: May 20, 2015 to May 7, 2015 (718 days).
- OTV-5: From September 7, 2017 to October 27, 2019 (780 days).
- OTV-6: From May 17, 2020 to November 12, 2022 (908 days).
Space Force and Boeing describe the X-37B as primarily a test platform; the vehicle allows researchers to see how payloads perform in the space environment and then examine them on the ground afterwards.
“Since the first launch of the X-37B in 2010, it has broken records and provided our nation with unparalleled capability to rapidly test and integrate new space technologies,” Chilton said.
Many of these payloads are classified, as is most X-37B activity; the Space Force doesn’t announce details of the vehicle’s orbit, for example, or tell us in advance when each OTV mission is going to end.
But military officials are revealing information about some of the equipment the X-37B carries aloft. For example, we know that OTV-6 tested the US Naval Research Laboratory’s Photovoltaic Radio Frequency Antenna Module. This device, the size of a pizza box, is designed to convert solar energy into microwaves, which can then be transmitted to the Earth. His work could help bring space-based solar power closer to reality, members of the experiment team said.
OTV-6 also carried FalconSat-8, a satellite designed by US Air Force Academy cadets that carries its own five experimental payloads. The X-37B deployed FalconSat-8 in October 2021, and the satellite remains in orbit today, Boeing officials said in today’s statement.
OTV-6 also performed a few experiments known to NASA. One tested how space radiation affects plant seeds, and another measured how various materials react to the space environment.
“This mission highlights Space Force’s focus on collaborative space exploration and expanding low-cost access to space for our partners, in and out. of the Department of the Air Force,” said General Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations for the Space Force. said in the same press release. (The Space Force is part of the US Air Force, just as the Marine Corps is part of the Navy.)
While OTV-6 set a new mission duration record for the X-37B program, it did not come close to the overall mark for spaceflight.
Some Earth observation and communications satellites operate in Earth orbit for a decade or more, for example. The International Space Station has been permanently manned by rotating astronaut crews since November 2000, and NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes remain operational in interstellar space more than 45 years after liftoff.
Mike Wall is the author of “The low (opens in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Or on Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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