Air Force X-37B robotic spaceplane has been flying for 500 days in Earth orbit
This enigmatic US military robotic space drone X-37B has now spent more than 500 days around Earth.
The Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) is also referred to as USSF-7 for the US Space Force and was launched on May 17, 2020 on an Atlas V 501 booster.
OTV-6 is the first to use a service module to host experiences. The service module is an attachment to the rear of the vehicle that allows additional experimental payload capacity to be carried into orbit.
Related: US Space Force’s secret X-37B space plane: 10 surprising facts
Main agenda: classified
While the main in-orbit program of the robotic space plane built by Boeing is classified, some of its onboard experiences have been identified before launch.
An experiment aboard the spacecraft comes from the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), an investigation into the transformation of solar energy into radiofrequency microwave energy. The experiment itself is called the Photovoltaic Radio-Frequency Antenna Module, abbreviated PRAM.
In addition to carrying the NRL’s PRAM into Earth orbit, the X-37B also deployed the FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the US Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct several in-orbit experiments. .
In addition, two NASA experiments are also on board the space plane to study the effects of the space environment on a sample plate of materials and seeds used to grow food.
OTV-1: launched on April 22, 2010 and landed on December 3, 2010, spending more than 224 days in orbit.
OTV-2: launched on March 5, 2011 and landed on June 16, 2012, spending more than 468 days in orbit.
OTV-3: launched on December 11, 2012 and landed on October 17, 2014, spending more than 674 days in orbit.
OTV-4: launched on May 20, 2015 and landed on May 7, 2015, spending nearly 718 days in orbit.
OTV-5: launched on September 7, 2017 and landed on October 27, 2019, spending nearly 780 days in orbit.
The OTV-1, OTV-2, and OTV-3 missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, while the OTV-4 and OTV-5 missions landed at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
It is not known when and where OTV-6 will return to Earth.
According to a Boeing fact sheet, “The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft in the world, designed to operate in low earth orbit, 150 to 500 miles above Earth. The vehicle is the first since the Space Shuttle with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis. This U.S. Air Force unmanned space vehicle explores reusable vehicle technologies that support long-term space goals.
The X-37B program is flown under the wing of a US Space Force unit called Delta 9, established and activated on July 24, 2020.
“Delta 9 Detachment 1 oversees the operations of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, an experimental program designed to demonstrate the technologies of a reliable, reusable and unmanned space test platform for the US Space Force,” according to a fact sheet published by Schriever Air Force. Base in Colorado.
“The mission of Delta 9 is to prepare, present and project assigned and attached forces for the purpose of conducting protection and defense operations and to provide national decision-making authorities with response options to deter and, if necessary, defeat orbital threats, ”the fact sheet explains. “In addition, Delta 9 supports Space Domain Awareness by conducting battlespace characterization operations in space and also conducts in-orbit experiments and technology demonstrations for the US Space Force.”
Leonard David is the author of the book “Moon Rush: The New Space Race”, published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has reported on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. This version of the story was posted on Space.com.