US Air Force confidential X-37B spaceplane returns with record-breaking results

The United States Air Force’s X-37B spaceplane is one of the most popular secrets in space exploration. Today, it has successfully made its landing back to Earth after staying unpiloted in space for 780 days — a new record in the military’s line of this type of classified missions.

The most recent mission known as X-37B’s Orbital Test Vehicle 5 (OTV-5) mission last Sunday, October 27, 2019, is the fifth ultra-long mission in the USAF’s fleet. The X-37B OTV-5 landed 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 originally launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Sept. 7, 2017.

We first reported that X-37B OTV-5 first broke the USAF’s record back in August after it accomplished 717 days in space as where its predecessor, OTV-4 mission, that made a record 718 days, which ended May 2017.

“This spacecraft is a key component of the space community. This milestone demonstrates our commitment to conducting experiments for America’s future space exploration,” said X-37B program manager Lt. Col. Jonathan Keen in the Air Force statement. “Congratulations to the X-37B team for a job well done.”

The USAF’s X-37B spacecraft can fly for long durations in space through solar panels, without a crew on board. As of now, it is known that 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.

A U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane, an unpiloted space vehicle, is seen after landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on October 27, 2019, to end its record 780-day OTV-5 mission. Source: U.S. Air Force

The Air Force, so far, has not been keen to reveal details regarding the specific purpose of the spaceplane missions but the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has said that they are used to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes for long-duration stints in the space environment, and to assess any lifetime degradation.

However, some speculated that the classified space missions are meant to establish an early foundation for President Donald Trump’s goal of establishing a U.S. Space Force.

“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.”

In the same statement, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett added: “The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” she said. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”

Additionally, OTV-5 also flew to a higher-inclination orbit than previous X-37B flights, suggesting it had new experiments or technology tests in store. In a statement today, Air Force officials confirmed OTV-5 carried multiple experiments and carried smaller satellites into orbit. 

“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 the statement. “This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites.”

“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.

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