Credit: Boeing

The next X-37B robotic space plane is scheduled to launch on May 16 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

One experiment onboard the craft will transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy which could then be transmitted to the ground.

In an announcement released today, the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, in partnership with the U.S. Space Force, will hurl the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6)  into Earth orbit on a sixth mission.

The X-37B remains a Department of the Air Force asset; however, the U.S. Space Force is responsible for the launch, on-orbit operations, and landing.

Credit: Boeing/Watch U.S. Fly

More experiments

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett explains in the press statement: “Demonstrating the department’s innovation, this X-37B mission will host more experiments than any prior missions. This launch also demonstrates the department’s collaboration that pushes the boundaries for reusable space systems.”

This will be the first X-37B mission 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.

X-37B Air Force space plane.
Credit: Boeing/Inside Outer Space Screengrab

Big step

“This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program,” adds Randy Walden, Director and Program Executive Officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

“This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.”

Post-landing technicians tend OTV-5 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.
Courtesy Photo 45th Space Wing Public Affairs

On-orbit experiments

This flight of the X-37B will 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.

The FalconSat-8 is an educational platform that will carry five experimental payloads for USAFA to operate.

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

In addition, a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory experiment will transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy which could then be transmitted to the ground.

X-37B handout.
Credit: Boeing



Length of mission?

There is no word on how long the space plane will operate in Earth orbit.

The X-37B program completed its fifth mission in October 2019, landing after 780 days on orbit, extending the total number of days spent on orbit for the program to 2,865 – or seven years and 10 months.

This new space plane mission – USSF-7 — will roar skyward atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster.

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

Milestone-setting space plane

Here’s a roster of the milestone-setting missions as told to Inside Outer Space by Major Will Russell, U.S. Space Force spokesperson.

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. 

The first four missions launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida thanks to an an Atlas-V booster.

The fifth mission launched from Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher.

Boeing handout describes X-37B program.
Credit: Boeing


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.

Total time on orbit for all five previous missions is 2,865 days – or 7 years and 10 months, Russell adds.

USAF has been studying use of power beaming spacecraft.
Credit: Kirtland Public Affairs


Power-beaming experimentation

The X-37B testing of power beaming continues a research program underway by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).

A power-beaming demonstration in orbit has already taken place onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

A NRL power-beaming demo took place in mid-February, facilitated by ISS astronaut Jessica Meir. A device converted electromagnetic waves into electric current on the orbiting outpost.

Meir showed how NRL’s LEctenna™, a light-emitting rectifying antenna, converted a wireless network signal, similar to home networks, into electric power. While the current that was produced and the light emitted was a small amount, the setup proved the concept in space.


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