Air Force X-37B space plane.
Credit: Boeing

The  X-37B military space drone has whisked by 900 days in Earth orbit – or two years, five months, seventeen days.

No word on how long this current 6th mission — The U.S. Space Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) – will remain in orbit. It was launched on May 17, 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

This mission underway is the first X-37B vehicle to use a service module to host experiments. The service module is an attachment to the aft of the vehicle that allows additional experimental payload capability to be carried to orbit.

The mission did deploy the FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct several experiments on orbit.

Encapsulated X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for U.S. Space Force-7 mission, now in Earth orbit.
Credit: Boeing

In addition, two NASA experiments are onboard the space plane to study the results of radiation and other space effects on a materials sample plate and seeds used to grow food.

Technology testing

A U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) experiment is also onboard the space plane, evaluating technology to transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy. That experiment continues to crank out data, said Paul Jaffe, electronics engineer and researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory.

Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has pioneered “sandwich” modules that are far more efficient for space solar power.
Credit: NRL/Jamie Hartman

“It’s still chugging along,” Jaffe told Inside Outer Space. “The longer we’re up there, the more we learn.”

The NRL experiment itself is called the Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module, PRAM for short.

Technologies being tested in the X-37B program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.

X-37B hangar at Kennedy Space Center.
Credit: Michael Martin/SAF


Flight roster

Here’s a listing of previous flights of the Boeing-built space plane:

OTV-1: launched on April 22, 2010 and landed on December 3, 2010, spending over 224 days on orbit.

OTV-2: launched on March 5, 2011 and landed on June 16, 2012, spending over 468 days on orbit.

OTV-3: launched on December 11, 2012 and landed on October 17, 2014, spending over 674 days on-orbit.

OTV-4: launched on May 20, 2015 and landed on May 7, 2015, spending nearly 718 days on-orbit.

OTV-5: launched on September 7, 2017 and landed on October 27, 2019, spending nearly 780 days on-orbit.

As to when and where OTV-6 will return to a wheels-stopped landing is anybody’s guess.

OTV-1, OTV-2, and OTV-3 missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, while the OTV-4 and OTV-5 missions landed at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

China space plane

Meanwhile, China’s space plane, catalogued as 53357/2022-093A, has also been circuiting the Earth. It was lofted on August 4th. Space tracker Robert Christy of Orbital Focus notes China’s craft recently acquired a companion.

That new object separated from the main vehicle between October 24 and October 30, Christy reported. The two objects are very close to each other, perhaps station keeping, he said.


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