The U.S. Space Force’s Boeing-built X-37B space plane weekend completed yet another record-setting mission, landing like an airplane at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida 908 days after it was launched.
This was the sixth mission in the hush-hush X-37B test program, and the first to fly with a ring-shaped service module on its tail. The service module, which was jettisoned before the reusable plane’s descent, accommodated an extra set of experimental payloads for NASA and the U.S. military. It’s built to be safely disposed of in the coming weeks.
Hours after the landing, the Space Force declared the mission to be a success.
“The deliberate manner in which we conduct on-orbit operations — to include the service module disposal — speaks to the United States’ commitment to safe and responsible space practices, particularly as the issue of growing orbital debris threatens to impact global space operations,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a news release.
Past X-37B missions, dating back to 2010, were conducted under the auspices of the Air Force, and the space plane’s fuselage still bears “USAF” markings. This was the first mission carried out by the Space Force, which was created as a separate military branch within the Department of the Air Force in 2019.
This mission, launched on an Atlas 5 rocket in May 2020, bested the 780-day endurance record that was set for the X-37B program in 2019. It also carried a record number of hosted experiments.
The Space Force said one of the experments, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Photovoltaic Radiofrequency Antenna Module, successfully harnessed solar rays outside Earth’s atmosphere and aimed to transmit power to the ground in the form of microwave energy.
FalconSat-8, an experimental satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory, was successfully deployed a year ago and remains in orbit.
The payloads flown for NASA included an experiment designed to test how well different types of thermal coatings, printed electronic materials and radiation-shielding materials hold up to exposure in space. Another NASA experiment investigated the effects of long-duration space exposure on seeds.
“The X-37B continues to push the boundaries of experimentation, enabled by an elite government and industry team behind the scenes,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, X-37B program director at the Department of the Air Force’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 Department of the Air Force and scientific community.”
Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing Space and Launch, also hailed the test flight’s completion. “Since the X-37B’s first launch in 2010, it has shattered records and provided our nation with an unrivaled capability to rapidly test and integrate new space technologies,” he said in a news release.
Neither Boeing nor the Space Force said if or when future X-37B flights might take place. The Pentagon is thought to have two X-37B orbital test vehicles in its fleet.