Encapsulated X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for United States Space Force-7 mission.
Credit: Boeing

 

The now orbiting X-37B space drone is winging its way toward 900 days in Earth orbit.

Back in July, this U.S. Space Force robotic craft zipped by the longest mission of the program: 780 days on orbit.

All is mum regarding how long this current 6th mission — X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) – will remain in space. It was launched in May 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Mid next week, unless the craft makes a near-term landing, the vehicle stretches its wings and sails past the 900-day mark.

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

Onboard experiments

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.

While the entire manifest of what the space plane is carrying and what the vehicle is carrying out is classified, there are some details that have been made publicly available.

The mission deployed 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.

Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has pioneered “sandwich” modules that are used in space solar power experiments.
Credit: NRL/Jamie Hartman

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.

Also, a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory experiment is evaluating technology to transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy.

Overall, 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.

Credit: Boeing

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.

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

 

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 touched down at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, while the most recent flights — OTV-4 and OTV-5 — landed at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

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