On May 6th, the US Air Force and Space Force announced that the X-37B space spy plane will be, once again, launched for its mysterious mission on May 16th.
The X-37B is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, kicking off the sixth mission for the robotic vehicle.
“In today’s age of electrons, space systems track storms, locate stranded motorists, timestamp credit card transactions, and monitor treaty compliance,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett. “Demonstrating the department’s innovation, this X-37B mission will host more experiments than any prior missions. This launch also demonstrates the department’s collaboration that pushes the boundaries for reusable space systems.”
The ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth is unique to the X-37B program and enables the U.S. to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain.
“The X-37B team continues to exemplify the kind of lean, agile and forward-leaning technology development we need as a nation in the space domain,” said U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond. “Each launch represents a significant milestone and advancement in terms of how we build, test, and deploy space capabilities in a rapid and responsive manner.”
The US Space Force is responsible for the launch, on-orbit operations and landing, but the X-37B space spy plane continues to be a US Air Force asset.
“This launch is a prime example of integrated operations between the Air Force, Space Force, and government-industry partnerships,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. “The X-37B continues to break barriers in advancing reusable space vehicle technologies and is a significant investment in advancing future space capabilities.”
For the first time, the X-37B will have attached its service module, which will be used to carry out “experiments.”
“This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program,” said Mr. Randy Walden, Director and Program Executive Officer for the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.”
The mission will deploy 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.
It is reportedly an educational platform.
In addition, two National Aeronautics and Space Administration experiments will be included to study the results of radiation and other space effects on a materials sample plate and seeds used to grow food.
Finally, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy and transmit it to the ground.
“We are excited to return the X-37B to space and conduct numerous on-orbit experiments for both the Air Force and its mission partners,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Keen, the X-37B program manager.
The X-37B has been grounded since October 2019, when it landed after spending 780 days in orbit carrying out undisclosed activities.
The Air Force has two X-37B, both of which were built by Boeing. The vehicles look like NASA’s old space shuttle orbiters, only much smaller. Each X-37B is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long by 9.5 feet (2.9 m) tall, with a wingspan of about 15 feet (4.6 m) and a payload bay the size of a pickup truck bed.
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