The X-37B Spaceplane Is Gearing Up for Its Next Mission

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

From Popular Mechanics

  • One of America's two X-37B spaceplanes is currently being prepped for a mid-May blastoff.

  • The space plane has spent up to 780 days in space.

  • Every flight has lasted longer than the previous one, possibly signaling that the X-37B might return in August 2022—or later.

The next mission for the X-37B spaceplane could break yet another record, lasting far longer than two years. The unmanned space drone, known for flying marathon missions in low-Earth orbit, is poised to spend a record amount of time performing classified missions for the U.S. Air Force. The spacecraft, set to launch into space on May 16, might well not return until mid-2022 or later.

The National Interest reports that the U.S. Space Force and United Launch Alliance are prepping for OTV-6, the sixth X-37B mission. The X-37B will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, riding atop a liquid fueled Atlas V rocket. The Air Force is as always being tight-lipped about the shuttle’s mission.

Traditionally the service says very little about what the X-37B does in space. Often the spaceplane conducts seemingly mundane orbital experiments for the Air Force Research Lab, but it is understood to conduct multiple missions per launch. OTV-5’s public mission included experiments involving testing “experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes in the long duration space environment.” Later, observers of the X-37B program discovered it also quietly released three satellites, designated USA 295, 296, and 297. Their purpose remains unknown.

The two-ship X-37B fleet has performed a total of five space missions, each lasting considerably longer than the previous one. The spaceplanes, lacking a human cargo and in part powered by solar panels, can remain in space far longer than manned craft. OTV-1 was launched in April 2010 and spent 225 days in space. OTV-2 went up in March 2011 and spent 469 days in space, double the previous flight. OTV-3 spent 675 days in space and OTV-4 spent 718. OTV-5 landed at Cape Canaveral in October 2019 after spending 780 days in space.

Could OTV-6 last 800 days or longer? It’s quite possible, but then again its payload bay is as large (or small) as a pickup truck’s. It’s not clear the ship can pack enough experiments—and secret satellites—to justify an 800 day trip.

Then again, the Air Force may just be interested in seeing how long the X-37B can stretch its already long record in orbit.

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