Next X-37B Spaceplane Mission to Test Space-to-Earth Microwave Power Beaming

Next X-37B Spaceplane Mission to Test Space-to-Earth Microwave Power Beaming

The leaders of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force revealed today that the next launch of the secretive X-37B spaceplane, set for May 16, will carry an experiment to convert solar energy into microwaves and beam them to Earth.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond, who heads the Space Force, participated in a webinar hosted by the Space Foundation. Both were scheduled to speak at the Space Foundation’s annual Space Symposium that had to be delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.  It now will take place October 31-November 3.  Barrett was a Life Director of the Space Foundation before taking her current job.

Barrett and Raymond showed a new Space Force recruiting video that includes a glimpse of the X-37B.  Barrett said it is part of an effort to declassify more of national security space.  She and Raymond both argue that space activities are over-classified, undermining efforts to better educate the public and policymakers about the crucial role space assets play in everyday life and the threats to them.

The video includes an intriguing spacecraft that looks like a futuristic space station, but Space Force spokesperson Maj. Will Russell said he did not have specifics surrounding the contents of the video.  “All I can say is the future is where we’ll make history” and we need the “brightest minds in science, technology, aerospace and engineering” to do it.

Space Force also issued a press release with additional photos of the vehicle inside its fairing and ready for launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

X-37B in fairing. Source; U.S. Space Force press release, May 6, 2020.
X-37B in fairing, side-view. Source: U.S. Space Force press release, May 6, 2020.
X-37B enclosed in fairing and atop United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. Source: U.S. Space Force press release, May 6, 2020.

There are two Boeing-built X-37B flightworthy Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs). In total they have flown 2,865 days (7 years and 10 months) in space on five missions.  The most recent flight ended in October 2019 after 780 days (just over 2 years) in orbit.

First flight: 2010, 224 days
Second flight: 2011-2012, 469 days
Third flight: 2012-2014 674 days
Fourth flight: 2015-2017, 718 days
Fifth flight: 2017-2019, 780 days

The upcoming launch on May 16 will be dedicated to the nation’s first responders who keep America strong, Barrett said.

The OTVs still belong to the Air Force, but the Space Force is responsible for launch, on-orbit operations, and landing.  The Space Force is part of the Department of the Air Force, analogous to the Marine Corps, which is part of the Department of the Navy.

This will be the first X-37B flight to host experiments in a service module, expanding the number that can be carried.  The service module is attached to the aft end of the vehicle. The announcements today described some of those experiments.

  • Deployment of the Air Force Academy/Air Force Research Laboratory Falconsat-8, an “educational platform” that carries five experimental  payloads for the Air Force Academy to operate;
  • two NASA experiments to study the results of radiation and other aspects of the space environment on a material sample plate and seeds to grow food; and
  • a Naval Research Laboratory experiment to “transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy which could then be transmitted to the ground.”

No further details of the space-to-Earth microwave power beaming experiment were released, but one application of the technology would be for Space Solar Power Satellites (SSPS) that have long been a dream of space visionaries.

The X-37B looks like a small space shuttle and, in fact, the program started as a NASA effort to build a crew taxi for the International Space Station.  Cancelled after President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, it was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and then to the Air Force.

X-37B after landing at Kennedy Space Center, October 27, 2019.

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