Classified X-37B space plane sets new spaceflight-duration record

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The highly confidential X-37B space plane reached a new milestone by breaking its previously set spaceflight-duration record today. The spacecraft sailed past the program mark of 717 days, 20 hours, and 42 minutes established by the previous mission known as Orbital Test Vehicle 4 (OTV-4).

The new record was set on August 26, 2019, at 6:43 a.m. EDT (10:43 a.m. GMT). The current mission, called OTV-5, began on September 7, 2017, with a liftoff atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

X-37B is a spacecraft managed by the U.S. Air Force and has started the unknown program in April 2010 with Orbital Test Vehicle-1 and was able to stay in space for 224 days.

Respectively, each successive mission has lasted roughly 200 days longer than the previous one with OTV-2 for 468 days, from March 2011 through June 2012. OTV-3 launched in December 2012 and landed in October 2014, racking up 675 days of spaceflight. And OTV-4 landed in May 2017 after nearly 718 days in orbit.

The current OTV-5 mission is expected to stay in orbit for at least several more months. When it comes to the objectives or purpose of the OTV missions, information is bijou.

The USAF’s X-37B spacecraft can fly for long durations in space through solar panels and without a crew on board.

Additionally, it is known as the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, or ASETS-II, which is developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes for long-duration stints in the space environment.

According to the AFRL, the payload’s three primary science objectives are to measure the initial on-orbit thermal performance, to measure long-duration thermal performance and to assess any lifetime degradation

The Air Force has at least two X-37Bs, both of which were built by Boeing. The solar-powered vehicles look like NASA’s old space shuttle orbiters, but are much smaller; an X-37B could fit entirely within the shuttle’s payload bay.

Each X-37B measures 29 feet (8.8 meters) long by 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, with a wingspan of about 15 feet (4.6 m). The space plane’s payload bay is about the size of a pickup-truck bed.

Like the space shuttle, the winged X-37B launches vertically and lands on a runway. All five X-37B missions have lifted off from Florida’s Space Coast. The first three landings took place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

However, as the X-37B remain classified, some reports indicate that the OTV missions are part of the early beginnings of what the U.S. government is currently establishing as a Space Force—a new government military branch intended to focus against threats coming from the trend of space exploration.

An outlet has reported that the X-37B is “designed to carry experimental payloads of sensors—high-tech cameras of various types, electronic sensors and ground-mapping radars.” Its ability to easily land means the ship could hypothetically bring a spy satellite into orbit for a testing period, then safely return it to Earth for any adjustments.

In June last year, President Donald Trump announced that he is directing the Pentagon to a new Space Force as an independent service branch aimed at ensuring American dominance in space.

Trump’s Space Force has been a topic of conversation from his administration for over a year. He made it official in February with the signing of Space Policy Directive-4, which ordered the Pentagon to establish a Space Force to go along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard.

Citing China and Russia as part of the reason behind establishing a U.S. Space Force, the Trump administration claims that preparing this early against threats may arise due to heightened interest over space exploration, is a smart move. Last month, France announced the creation of its own space force.

The U.S. Space Command, which will oversee daily space systems operations and spearhead offensive and defensive space maneuvers as global militaries become more involved in the domain, will officially start operations by the end of the month, says Vice President Mike Pence and Pentagon officials.

“The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold; reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” Air Force officials wrote in the X-37B fact sheet.

“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 officials added. 

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