The US Air Force’s autonomous X-37B space spy plane landed on October 27th, after a 780-day long mission in Earth’s orbit.
The X-37B’s Orbital Test Vehicle 5 (OTV-5) mission ended with a smooth autonomous touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:51 a.m. EDT (0751 GMT), Air Force officials said. The mission launched on September 7th, 2017, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on-board a Space X Falcon 9 booster, and the Air Force is preparing to launch the sixth X-37B mission from CCAFS in 2020.
“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”
The space plane is the US Air Force’s premiere reusable and autonomous spacecraft.
“The safe return of this spacecraft, after breaking its own endurance record, is the result of the innovative partnership between government and industry,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. “The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.”
This was the second time the X-37B landed at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility — Mission 4 landed after 718 days in orbit. This is impressive since the space plane was designed to remain in orbit for a duration of 270 days.
“Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing,” said Brig. Gen. Doug Schiess, 45th Space Wing commander. “Our team has been preparing for this event, and I am extremely proud to see their hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B.”
It is unclear what exactly the X-37B did while in orbit, US Air Force officials maintain that the missions are classified.
One payload was the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, an experiment designed to “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long-duration space environment,” according to an Air Force statement.
The space plane also flew at a higher-inclination orbit than the previous flights, which potentially means that it had new experiments and technology tests to carry out. Air Force officials confirmed that the X-37B carried multiple experiments and carried smaller satellites into orbit.
“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,” said Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director. “This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites.”
Skywatcher Ralf Vandebergh from the Netherlands, took a photograph of the X-37B, it is a smaller version of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiter.
“The OTV [Orbital Test Vehicle] is a small version of the classic Space Shuttle, it is really a small object, even at only 300 km altitude, so don’t expect the detail level of ground based images of the real Space Shuttle.”
The statements regarding the X-37B’s mission are interesting, since the US Air Force said it delivered small satellites to orbit, but that the move wasn’t reported to the Un Registration convention.
The statement that this @usairforce X-37 flight deployed small satellites is alarming, since the US has not reported those deployments in its UN Registration Convention submissions. This would be the first time that either the USA or Russia has blatantly flouted the Convention. https://t.co/mpLWuvsECV
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) October 27, 2019
Jonathan McDowell is an astronomer at Harvard and space tracking expert and he argued that the deployment of the small satellites violated the UN’s Registration Convention — which requires countries to tell the UN exactly what they’re sending into space. There’s really no clarity whether the satellites remain in orbit or not.
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