The US Army’s X-37B robotic space plane is close to setting a record for mission duration.
The X-37B It was launched into Earth orbit on May 17, 2020 on the program’s sixth mission, a flight known as the Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6).
The space force minishuttle is now up for 773 days. That’s just a week shy of the X-37B’s record of 780 days, which is set on the OTV-5. (This program record is nowhere near the overall mark for orbital survival; for example, Landsat-5 . satellite Observing Earth from orbit for 29 years.)
While the initial orbital agendas for the robotic space plane built by Boeing are being sorted out, some of its in-flight experiences have been revealed ahead of launch.
One such experiment, from the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), is looking at converting solar energy into microwave energy at radio frequency. The experience is called Photoelectric Radio Frequency Antenna Moduleor PRAM for short.
We also know that OTV-6 involved the deployment of the FalconSat 8, a small satellite developed by the US Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory for several in-orbit experiments.
In addition, two NASA experiments were placed on board the space plane to study the effects of the space environment on the sample plate of materials and seeds used to grow food.
OTV-6 is the first X-37B mission to use a server module to host experiments. The service module is an attachment in the rear of the vehicle that allows additional pilot payload to be transferred 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 April 22, 2010 and landed on December 3, 2010, and spent more than 224 days in orbit.
- OTV-2 was launched on March 5, 2011 and landed on June 16, 2012, spending over 468 days in orbit.
- OTV-3 was launched on December 11, 2012 and landed on October 17, 2014, spending over 674 days in orbit.
- OTV-4 was launched on May 20, 2015 and landed on May 7, 2017, spending approximately 718 days in orbit.
- OTV-5 was launched on September 7, 2017 and landed on October 27, 2019, spending approximately 780 days in orbit.
It is unclear when and where the 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.
The X-37B program is being launched under the auspices of a US Space Force unit called Delta 9, which was founded in July 2020.
“Delta 9’s mission is to prepare, deliver, and project assigned and associated forces for the purpose of conducting protection and defense operations and to provide national decision-making authorities with response options to deter tropical threats and, when necessary, defeat them” explains the fact sheet. “In addition, Delta 9 supports space domain awareness by conducting space battlefield characterizations, as well as conducting in-orbit experiments and technology demonstrations for the US Space Force.”
The Space Force is believed to have two X-37Bs in its fleet, both built by Boeing. X-37B takes off vertically over a rocket and lands horizontally on a runway, like an old NASA. Space ship orbit.
The military space plane looks a lot like the now retired shuttle, but it’s much smaller—it’s 29 feet (8.8 m) long compared to 122 feet (37 m). There’s another major difference, too: NASA’s shuttle is manned, while the X-37B is automated.
Boeing notes that the X-37B features several elements that mark the first in-orbit use of a space plane, including fully automated landing and landing functions, flight controls and brakes that use all electromechanical (no hydraulics) actuations, and the fuselage is made of a hull Relatively light composite, rather than traditional aluminum.
“The X-37B is one of the world’s newest and most advanced spacecraft, designed to operate in low Earth orbit, 150 to 500 miles away. [240 to 800 kilometers] Above ground, “Boeing Written in the description of the car (Opens in a new tab). “The vehicle is the first since the Space Shuttle that has the ability to return experiments to Earth for further examination and analysis. This is the United States [Space] The Force Force unmanned spacecraft is exploring reusable vehicle technologies that support long-range space goals.”
The X-37B is designed to carry out air missions lasting up to 270 days, Boeing noted. But every flight except the first exceeded this presumed limit.
Leonard David is the author of “Moon Rush: The New Space Race,” published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on Twitter Tweet embed (Opens in a new tab) or on Facebook (Opens in a new tab).