No one knows exactly what it was doing for the past two years, but the Air Force’s super-secret X-37B has returned to Earth after setting a record while in orbit.
The unmanned spaceplane returned to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida on Oct. 27.
The 780-day Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 broke a previous record of 718 days as the longest orbit for the experimental plane, according to an Air Force news release. The plane was designed to stay in orbit 270 days, the release said.
“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said in a statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”
The recently concluded flight, which began on Sept. 7, 2017, was the fifth test conducted by the Air Force. A sixth flight is planned for 2020.
Although the Air Force is loath to share details of the plane’s activities, the release said that it provides “the performance and flexibility to improve technologies in a way that allows scientists and engineers to recover experiments tested in a long-duration space environment” and “risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”
The @usairforce X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle landed after 780 days in orbit! The only one of its kind, the X-37B is designed as a reusable platform to test technologies for long periods in space. Press ▶️ to watch! #KnowYourMil pic.twitter.com/NurgmNZaPZ
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) November 1, 2019
“Technologies being tested in the 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,” the Air Force said on its X-37B fact sheet.
“The safe return of this spacecraft, after breaking its own endurance record, is the result of the innovative partnership between government and industry,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said in a statement. “The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.”
Similar to the vastly larger space shuttle, the X-37B goes into space atop a rocket and then returns as though it were a conventional aircraft.
The solar-powered X-37B was adapted from NASA’s initial designs for a spaceplane. The Air Force has two spaceplanes, both built by Boeing.
“The X-37B is the first vehicle since NASA’s Shuttle Orbiter with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis, but with an on-orbit time of 270 days or greater, the X-37B can stay in space for much longer,” the program fact sheet said.
“This program continues to push the envelope as the world’s only reusable space vehicle. With a successful landing today, the X-37B completed its longest flight to date and successfully completed all mission objectives,” Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director, said in a statement.
“We’re doing experimentation. You know that, publicly we’ve said that,” Walden said in recent public comments about the spaceplane, according to BreakingDefense.
“We’re doing experimentation predominantly to get after what I’ll say is buying down risks for things that can be very expensive in space, and get a good solid understanding of how one would prepare ourselves for either a large buy, an expensive buy if you will, or in this case, get on with how one want to operate in the future,” he said.
“This spacecraft is a key component of the space community. This milestone demonstrates our commitment to conducting experiments for America’s future space exploration,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Keen, X-37B program manager, said in a statement.
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