OTV-6 outfitted with service module.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Adam Shanks

 

That fresh from Earth orbit X-37B space plane was outfitted for the first time with a service module, released from the craft prior to its landing after 908 days of flight.

The Boeing-built space plane set a new long-duration record –- with this latest flight, dubbed Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) — surpassing the program’s previous record of 780 days. 

“Since the X-37B’s first launch in 2010, it has shattered records and provided our nation with an unrivaled capability to rapidly test and integrate new space technologies,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president, Boeing Space and Launch.

“With the service module added, this was the most we’ve ever carried to orbit on the X-37B and we’re proud to have been able to prove out this new and flexible capability for the government and its industry partners,” Chilton added.

Boundaries of experimentation

Adding his voice to the utility of the space plane’s add-on module, Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, Department of Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office’s X-37B Program Director:

OTV-6 – On the ground at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Adam Shanks

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

Ring toss

The service module is a ring attached to the rear of the vehicle expanding the number of experiments that can be hosted during a mission. That hardware was left in space prior to the space plane’s dive back to Earth on November 12th.

The first X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle waits in the encapsulation cell of the Evolved Expendable Launch vehicle on April 5, 2010 at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. 
Credit: U.S. Air Force

 

Whether or not experiments within that service module remain active is an unknown.

In the coming weeks, the service module will be disposed of in accordance with “best practices” – seemingly indicating a propulsive push to purposely de-orbit the module in a controlled way.

On this point, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said: “The deliberate manner in which we conduct on­orbit operations-to include the service module disposal-speaks to the United States’ commitment to safe and responsible space practices, particularly as the issue of growing orbital debris threatens to impact global space operations.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Space Force has issued a first-time-seen image of the hefty-looking service module, pre-liftoff back in May 2020.

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