Technicians tend X-37B space plane after tarmac touchdown.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

The enigmatic U.S. Air Force space drone – the X-37B – is heading for a September 7 liftoff, according to military officials.

In an Air Force Space Command statement, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is undergoing final launch preparations for the fifth mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) program.

“The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program,” said Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community.”

A program first is that the unpiloted space plane will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Four previous X-37B missions were all lofted by United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rockets—a joint venture by Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Late last week, the Falcon 9 booster to loft the space plane was static fired.

Last Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission touched down at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017.
Credit: Michael Martin/USAF

Also, OTV-5 will be launched into, and landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions “to further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelope,” according to the press statement.

Mystery manifest

What this vehicle will carry is largely classified.

However, it is known that the OTV missions are dedicated to advance the X-37B’s performance and flexibility as a space technology demonstrator and host platform for experimental payloads.

“This mission carries small satellite ride shares and will demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies,” the statement adds.

“Building upon the fourth mission and previous collaboration with experiment partners, this mission will host the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader [known as ASETS-11] payload to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment,” the Space Command statement explains.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 (OTV-4), the Air Force’s unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017.
Credit: USAF

Long duration record

Flights of the craft have repeatedly broken its own long-duration record.

The first OTV mission began April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

An OTV-3 mission chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit when it landed Oct. 17, 2014.

On May 7, 2017, OTV-4 landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility – a first for the program as all previous missions ended with a tarmac touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The OTV-4 conducted on-orbit experiments for 718 days during its mission, extending the total number of days spent on-orbit for the OTV program to 2,085 days.

Built by Boeing

Built by Boeing, the robotic mini-space plane is one of two known reusable X-37B vehicles that constitute the space plane “fleet.”

Appearing like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter, the reusable military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 meters) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 meters).

The space drone has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed that can be outfitted with a robotic arm. It has a launch weight of 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit by gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.



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