The US Space Force has two robotic X-37B space planes making it a mini-fleet. These spacecraft have been flying secret missions since 2010.
Their most recent mission, OTV-6 started in May 2020 and is currently in progress. The name suggests that this is the sixth flight for the robotic X-37B space planes. The other five missions occurred in April 2010, March 2011, December 2012, May 2015, and September 2017.
First, it is tiny.
The X-37B is just 29 feet long, with a wingspan of 15 feet. Two X-37Bs could fit inside the shuttle’s cavernous payload bay.
The X-37B space plane designers envisioned the shuttle carrying the smaller spaceplane to orbit; however, they ultimately decided that launching the X-37B atop a rocket would be more economical. Like the space shuttle, the X-37B lands on a runway, plane-style, but does everything autonomously.
Second, all missions are classified.
Even though the Space Force has disclosed some of the payloads that have flown aboard the X-37B space planes, most of the space plane’s gear and the details of its orbital activities are classified.
The secrecy raises speculation that the vehicle is a space weapon, perhaps designed to take out or capture satellites. However, military officials have consistently denied this assumption, emphasizing that the X-37B is just testing out technologies for future spacecraft and carrying various experiments up to space and back.
Third, the missions are astonishingly long.
The Space Force’s fact sheet about the X-37B states the space planes can spend “270 days or greater” in orbit. The vehicle has passed the nine-month marker multiple times. The first mission, in 2010, stayed aloft for just 225 days.
The second and third lasted 469 days and 674 days, to put the duration in perspective. The fourth mission orbited Earth for a record of 718 days before it landed in May 2017, and OTV-5 then broke that mark, racking up 780 days in orbit. OTV-6 is ongoing, and it’s unclear when it will end.
Fourth, the space plane generates solar powered.
Similar to most satellites, the X-37B generates power from the sun. The space plane has gallium arsenide solar cells, which deploy from the vehicle’s payload bay after it reaches orbit.
The X-37B could possibly help harvest sunlight in space, a longtime dream. One of the few OTV-6 payloads disclosed by the military is a US Naval Research Laboratory experiment called PRAM-FX. It converts sunlight to radio-frequency microwave energy. A vital step for any space-based solar power station, which would then beam those microwaves down for use on Earth.
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