The X-37B, Boeing’s entry into the current generation of unmanned follow-on to the Space Shuttle pushed past the 200 day mark in space last week. (artist’s illustration, right)
That mission, known as Orbital Test Vehicle-5 (OTV-5), began Sept. 7, 2017. According to Air Force officials, one payload flying on OTV-5 is the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, or ASETS-11, of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). This cargo is testing experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes for long durations in the space environment.
“The X-37B has been and remains a technology demonstrator,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Most space technology is dual-use, with the ever-increasing sway toward warfare in space, it’s likely that the more militaristic uses of the space plane will be pursued more vigorously during the Trump Administration.
How long the unpiloted, reusable craft will stay aloft is not known, but experts have said it’s likely to land at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility, as the OTV-4 mission did back on May 7, 2017. That was a first for the program, as all prior missions had ended with a tarmac touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The U.S. Air Force’s robotic X-37B space plane is a miniature space shuttle capable of long, classified missions in orbit. See how the X-37B space plane works in this Space.com infographic.
Each X-37B mission has set a new flight-duration record for the program.
- OTV-1 began April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.
- OTV-2 began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.
- OTV-3 chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit before finally coming down on Oct. 17, 2014.
- OTV-4 conducted on-orbit experiments for 718 days during its mission, extending the total number of days spent in space for the OTV program to 2,085 days.
The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office manages the X-37B project, using it to perform risk-reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space-vehicle technologies.
The space drone has a payload bay about the size of a pickup-truck bed, which can be outfitted with a robotic arm. X-37B has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit by gallium-arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.
The classified X-37B program “fleet” consists of two known reusable vehicles, both of which were built by Boeing. Looking like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter, the military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, with a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m).