Air Force’s experimental space plane returns after record flight

The U.S. Air Force’s experimental X-37B orbital test vehicle returned to Earth on Saturday after a record mission lasting 908 days, beating its previous stay in space by 129 days.

The uncrewed, reusable, Boeing-built space plane landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida, marking the end of its sixth mission, OTV-6, which started on May 17, 2020.

The X-37B orbital test vehicle resembles NASA’s now-decommissioned space shuttle, but at 8.8 meters (29 feet) long, it’s about a quarter the length.

USAF's X-37B space plane.
U.S. Air Force

This latest mission wasn’t only its longest. It was also the first X-37B flight to carry a service module, in this case a ring attached to the rear of the vehicle to increase the number of experiments that can be hosted during a mission. The module, which allows USAF to offer low-cost space access to more partners, was released from the space plane before landing to maintain the vehicle’s aerodynamic design for safe entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

One of the experiments on the most recent flight was set up by the Naval Research Laboratory and focused on converting solar power into microwave energy, while another evaluated the ability of different materials to withstand a space environment.

A third investigation examined the effect of long-duration space exposure on seeds, with a particular focus on the effects of radiation. Discoveries could help to enhance space crop production for future interplanetary missions and the establishment of permanently inhabited bases in space, USAF said.

“The X-37B continues to push the boundaries of experimentation, enabled by an elite government and industry team behind the scenes,” said USAF Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Fritschen. “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.”

USAF describes the primary objectives of the X-37B as twofold: “Reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space, and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.”

Timing details of the space plane’s next mission have yet to be announced.

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