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US Air Force space plane prepares for 2-year long mission

The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Oct. 27, 2019. The X-37B OTV is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force/Released)
May 01, 2020

The U.S. Air Force is preparing its X-37B space plane for a mission in space that could last for two years.

The X-37B, referred to as Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6), is preparing to go on its sixth mission, the Air Force said in a statement on Wednesday. The Air Force is deploying the 29-feet-long Boeing-made space plane to test out new technology, but the mysterious robotic mini shuttle’s capabilities appear to exceed that description.

The X-37B is scheduled to launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on May 16 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Its first mission began in April 2010 when it lasted 224 days. In October 2019, it landed from a record-setting 780-day journey in space. The test vehicle has spent a total of 2,865 days in orbit around Earth.

At the time, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett touted the X-37B’s importance as a renewable spaceplance.

“Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities,” Barrett added.

The X-37 project started in 1999. It has also been on a 468-day mission in 2011. Its third mission was a 674-day trip. The fourth mission set a then-record of 717 days in space. It also set a record at the time in 2017 for a 718-day long journey in space. In September 2017, it broke that record when it reached 779 days.

As a matter of habit, the Air Force does not normally disclose the X-37B’s payload, except on its fifth mission when it carried the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader built by the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“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, in October 2019.

“This program continues to push the envelope as the world’s only reusable space vehicle,” added 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.”

What the X-37B does in space is also a bit of a mystery. According to a previous press release from the Air Force, the X-37B program “performs risk reduction, experimentation, and concept-of-operations development for reusable space-vehicle technologies.”

It seems to have a lot in common with some of the latest space weapons developed by China and Russia. The Air Force has two X-37B’s, so while one is in space, the other is undergoing refurbishment.

The vehicle has consistently been able to endure in space for a longer period of time. Once in orbit, it deploys solar panels for powering on-board systems and uses liquid fuel for its maneuvering thrusters.

With the use of those thrusters, the X-37B is highly maneuverable and can quickly and repeatedly change its orbit. Inspection satellites developed by Russia and China, which can double as weapons, also are maneuverable.