The U.S. Space Force has a top-secret, unmanned space plane that orbits the planet, conducting science experiments. Known as X-37B, the solar-powered space plane has just returned from its sixth mission, which took 908 days. That’s the longest it has ever been in orbit.
The science and other stuff to know
The X-37B military plane was built by Boeing and was initially designed for an on-orbit duration of 270 days. It looks much like NASA’s retired space shuttles, only that it’s smaller than the shuttles.
The space vehicle is boosted into orbit by rocket boosters and lands on a conventional runway like an airplane. It’s powered by solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.
While the exact purpose of the X-37B was never clearly revealed during its launch in 2010, its recent mission hosted a service module that carried experiments for the Naval Research Laboratory, U.S. Air Force Academy, and others. The mission lasted 908 days, and the module separated from the vehicle before de-orbiting to ensure a safe landing, the Space Force said in a statement.
Among the experiments was a satellite dubbed the FalconSat-8 that was deployed in October 2021, and remains in orbit. Another experiment evaluated the effects of long-duration space exposure on seeds, according to Phys.org.
With the successful completion of its sixth mission, the reusable space plane has helped the scientific community in multiple ways.
“Since the X-37B’s first launch, it has shattered records and provided our nation with an unrivaled capability to rapidly test and integrate new space technologies,” Jim Chilton, a senior vice president for Boeing, said.
“The X-37B continues to push the boundaries of experimentation, enabled by an elite government and industry team behind the scenes,” added Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, the X-37B program director for the Air Force Department’s Rapid Capabilities Office. “The ability to conduct on-orbit experiments and bring them home safely for in-depth analysis on the ground has proven valuable for the… scientific community.”
The X-37B’s most recent mission is the longest it has been in orbit. Its previous mission lasted 780 days, and it has spent a total of 3,774 days in space since its first launch in 2010.