The US military’s X-37B robotic spaceplane is approaching a mission duration record.
X-37B launched into Earth orbit on May 17, 2020 as part of the program’s sixth mission, a flight known as Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6).
space forces the mini shuttle has been in the air for 773 days. This is only a week short of the X-37B’s record of 780 days, set by the OTV-5. (This program entry does not come close to the overall score for orbit stays; for example, Landsat-5 satellite observed the Earth from orbit for 29 years.)
Connected: 10 Surprising Facts About the US Military’s X-37B Space Plane
While the core orbital programs of the Boeing-built robotic spaceplane are classified, some of its onboard experiments were revealed prior to launch.
One such experiment, conducted by the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), investigates the conversion of solar energy into radio frequency microwave energy. The experiment is called Photoelectric RF Antenna Moduleor PRAM for short.
We also know that OTV-6 included the deployment of FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the US Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct several experiments in orbit.
In addition, two NASA experiments are being carried out aboard the space plane to study the effects of the space environment on the material sample plate and seeds used to grow food.
OTV-6 is the first X-37B mission to use a service module for experiments. The service module is an attachment to the aft part of the spacecraft that allows additional experimental payloads to be delivered into orbit.
Here is a list of previous X-37B missions, each of which lasted longer than its immediate predecessor:
- OTV-1 was launched on 22 April 2010 and landed on 3 December 2010 after more than 224 days in orbit.
- OTV-2 was launched on March 5, 2011 and landed on June 16, 2012, having spent more than 468 days in orbit.
- OTV-3 was launched on 11 December 2012 and landed on 17 October 2014 after more than 674 days in orbit.
- OTV-4 was launched on May 20, 2015 and landed on May 7, 2017, spending almost 718 days in orbit.
- OTV-5 was launched on September 7, 2017 and landed on October 27, 2019, having spent nearly 780 days in orbit.
It is unclear when and where OTV-6 will descend to Earth. OTV-1, OTV-2 and OTV-3 landed at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, while OTV-4 and OTV-5 landed at NASA. Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Oversight of Operations
The X-37B program is carried out under the auspices of a unit of the US space forces called Delta 9, which was created in July 2020.
“Delta 9 Detachment 1 observes the operation of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, an experimental program designed to demonstrate the technology of a robust, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the US Space Force,” Space Force officials wrote. Delta 9 Newsletter (will open in a new tab).
“Delta 9’s mission is to prepare, present and design assigned and attached forces for defense and defense operations and to provide national decision-makers with response options to contain and, if necessary, eliminate orbital threats,” the statement said. the newsletter explains. “In addition, Delta 9 supports Space Domain Awareness by conducting space-based combat space characterization operations, as well as conducting in-orbit experiments and technology demonstrations for the US Space Force.”
There are believed to be two X-37Bs in the Space Force fleet, both of which were built by Boeing. The X-37B is launched vertically on a rocket and lands horizontally on the runway like an old NASA plane. space shuttle orbiter.
In fact, the military space plane is very similar to the now retired shuttle, but it is much smaller – only 29 feet (8.8 meters) in length compared to 122 feet (37 meters). There is another key difference: NASA’s shuttle was manned, while the X-37B was robotic.
Boeing noted that the X-37B has many features that mark the first use of a spaceplane in orbit, including fully automated deorbit and landing functions, flight controls and brakes using full electromechanical control (no hydraulics) and airframe made of relatively lightweight composite construction rather than traditional aluminum.
“The X-37B is one of the world’s newest and most advanced reentry vehicles, designed to operate in low Earth orbit at distances of 150 to 500 miles. [240 to 800 kilometers] over the earth, boeing wrote in the description of the car (will open in a new tab). “The ship is the first since the Space Shuttle to be able to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis. This is the United States. [Space] The Force unmanned spacecraft explores reusable vehicle technologies that support long-term space goals.”
The X-37B was designed for flights of up to 270 days, Boeing said. But every flight, except the first, has significantly exceeded this supposed limit.
Leonard David is the author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race published by National Geographic in May 2019. David, a longtime contributor to Space.com, has been writing about the space industry for over five decades. Follow us on Twitter @spacedot.com (will open in a new tab) or at facebook (will open in a new tab).
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