X-37B Back Home After Record Setting Duration in Orbit

X-37B Back Home After Record Setting Duration in Orbit

The U.S. Space Force’s X-37B spaceplane landed in Florida this morning with the telltale double sonic boom heralding its arrival. On this sixth flight, OTV-6, it spent 908 days circling Earth on a classified mission, surpassing the previous record of 780 days. What little DOD will reveal about the flight is that for the first time it carried a service module that enabled more types of experiments and it also deployed an Air Force satellite, FalconSat-8, that is still in orbit.

The reusable Boeing-built vehicle looks like a small Space Shuttle and, in fact, lands at the shuttle landing strip at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The program actually started as a NASA effort to build a crew taxi for the International Space Station, but the agency terminated it in 2004 after President George W. Bush announced a strategy shift for the human spaceflight program that included cancelling the Space Shuttle once construction of the ISS was completed. NASA transferred X-37B to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and it was later taken over by the Air Force.

A technician walks to the U.S. Space Force’s X-37B uncrewed spaceplane after landing at Kennedy Space Center’s shuttle landing strip, November 12, 2022. Photo credit: U.S. Space Force

Two flightworthy Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs) were built. Launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 17, 2020, this was the sixth flight since 2010. It landed today at 5:22 am EST.

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
Sixth flight: 2020-2022, 908 days

Little is known publicly about these ultra-classified missions other than that the vehicles remain in orbit for very long periods of time and autonomously return to land on Earth. In total, they have spent more than 10 years in space.

The Space Force said that for the first time this mission included a service module. Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report tweeted a photo showing the service module today.

The X-37B program is a partnership between the Department of the Air Force’s (DAF’s) Rapid Capabilities Office and the Space Force. The Air Force and the Space Force both are part of the DAF.

Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, DAF Rapid Capabilities Office’s X-37B Program Director said: “The ability to conduct on-orbit experiments and bring them home safely for in-depth analysis on the ground has proven valuable for the Department of the Air Force and scientific community. The addition of the service module on OTV-6 allowed us to host more experiments than ever before.”

The Space Force is responsible for launch, on-orbit operations, and landing. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, the new Chief of Space Operations for the Space Force, added: “This mission highlights the Space Force’s focus on collaboration in space exploration and expanding low-cost access to space for our partners, within and outside of the Department of the Air Force.”

The two services say little about what is aboard the X-37B or what it’s doing although in this case some information was provided before launch and after landing.

  • The Air Force Academy/Air Force Research Laboratory FalconSat-8 was deployed in October 2021 and remains in orbit providing Academy cadets unique hands-on experience as space operators prior to entering active duty.
  • A NASA Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS-2) sample plate, similar to METIS-1 on OTV-5, with thermal control coatings, printed electronic materials, and candidate radiation shielding materials was mounted, on the flight vehicle. NASA will compare observed effects to ground simulations to validate and improve the precision of space environment models.
  • A NASA experiment was flown to study the resistance and susceptibility of seeds to space environment-unique stresses, notably radiation, on a long-duration mission.
  • A Naval Research Laboratory Photovoltaic Radiofrequency Antenna Module successfully harnessed solar energy  and “aimed to transmit power to the ground” in the form of radio frequency microwave energy. Today’s statement did not say it actually did transmit microwave energy to the ground, only that it “aimed” to. Before launch it was said the experiment would “transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy which could then be transmitted to the ground” leaving open the question of whether it would or not.

Jim Chilton, Senior Vice President for Space and Launch at Boeing, said with “the service module added, this was the most we’ve ever carried to orbit on the X-37B and we’re proud to have been able to prove out this new and flexible capability for the government and its industry partners.”

The service module separated from the X-37B before it reentered. Frank Kendall, Secretary of the Air Force, said it would be disposed of “in accordance with best practices.”

The service module successfully separated from the OTV before landing, which is a necessary activity due to the aerodynamic forces experienced by the X-37B vehicle upon re-entry. In the coming weeks, the service module will be disposed of in accordance with best practices. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said, “The deliberate manner in which we conduct on­orbit operations-to include the service module disposal-speaks to the United States’ commitment to safe and responsible space practices, particularly as the issue of growing orbital debris threatens to impact global space operations.”

The United States and others are trying to establish international norms of responsible behavior in space. The U.S. has been especially critical of Russia for creating thousands of pieces of space debris last year by firing a missile against one of its own satellites as an antisatellite test and of China for allowing its Long March-5B spent rocket stage to make uncontrolled reentries after each launch.

China is widely thought to be developing a similar vehicle. It launched a test version in 2020 that China’s Xinhua news agency referred to as a “reusable experimental vehicle.” Another was launched three months ago and is still in space. As with X-37B, whatever it’s doing is shrouded in secrecy. Amateur space observers have been anticipating its reentry for weeks, but apparently it is still in orbit. Bob Christy (@Orbital Focus) tweeted that landing opportunities arise every 71 hours or so.

Christy also reported that an object separated from the spaceplane at the end of October and is gradually drifting away.

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