The Air Force’s experimental space plane returned to Earth this week after spending a record 780 days in orbit carrying experiments from the Air Force Research Laboratory, which is based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, as it’s formally called, conducted in-orbit experiments during its more than two-year mission, which broke its own record for consecutive days in space, according to the Air Force.
The vehicle gave ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth is unique to the X-37B program and enables the U.S. to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in space.
“This spacecraft is a key component of the space community. This milestone demonstrates our commitment to conducting experiments for America’s future space exploration,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Keen, X-37B program manager.
The X-37B is a reusable spacecraft and the Air Force has tested it five times, meaning the test vehicle has spent a total of 2,865 days in orbit around Earth.
The Wright-Patt based AFRL has been at the forefront of many developments in space technology, including the Apollo 11 flight which was the first to put a man on the moon in 1969. The lab is also currently working on a program called Agility Prime to help foster the creation of flying cars that could be used in the military.
“This program continues to push the envelope as the world’s only reusable space vehicle…” said Randy Walden, Air Force rapid capabilities office director. “This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites.”
Sunday’s landing marked the second time the X-37B landed at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Facility in Florida.
The spacecraft’s fourth mission landed after 718 days in orbit, according to the Air Force. The space plane was designed for an in-orbit duration of 270 days, meaning it has now surpassed that limit by around 610 days.
The Air Force’s 45th Space Wing is planning the X-37B on its sixth mission in 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., according to the Air Force.
“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable space plane,” Barbara Barrett, the Secretary of the Air Force said in a prepared statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”
The space plane is just the latest example of the U.S. military’s move toward space.
Vice President Mike Pence announced a little over a year ago that President Donald Trump’s administration would seek to establish a standalone Space Force by 2020. The debate over war-fighting in space could still have big implications for the Air Force, Loren Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute has said.
That’s because the Air Force already has its own lower-level Space Command, which is headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, it oversees the Space and Missile Systems Center in El Segundo, Calif.
An eventual sixth military branch focused solely on space could also impact the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patt, Thompson has said. NASIC analyzes air, space, and cyber threats, such as ballistic missile capabilities, and provides findings to the nation’s political and military leaders.
Regardless, the X-37B and its recent achievements will help whatever branch of the military uses it to conduct business and research in space, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in a press release.
“The safe return of this spacecraft, after breaking its own endurance record, is the result of the innovative partnership between government and industry,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. “The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.”
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