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Hard Science

Top-secret U.S. space plane about to leave Earth for years

The Space Force will soon launch its X-37B spacecraft on a classified mission.

Credit: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida May 7, 2017.

Key Takeaways
  • The U.S. Air Force is preparing to launch its X-37B space drone made by Boeing.
  • The spacecraft is like a mini-space shuttle and is used to test technologies.
  • X-37B's missions are highly classified, leading to speculation about their purpose.

The U.S. Space Force is about to launch the sixth mission of the secretive X-37B space plane. Where will the plane go and what will it do? Specific details about the robotic spacecraft and its missions are highly classified by the United States government, fueling speculation and conspiracies. The new mission is expected to see the plane away from Earth for at least two years.

The last mission of the X-37B had the plane away from our planet for a total of 780 days, from Sept. 7, 2017 until October 27, 2019. That flight broke the record for the longest amount of time in space by a spacecraft.

The reusable plane shares some similarities with the Space Shuttle, although being much smaller at 29 feet long, and is also made by Boeing. Its new flight, dubbed mission OTV-6 (with “OTV” standing in for “Orbital Test Vehicle”) will supposedly have the mini-shuttle testing out new technologies, as reports The National Interest. In reality, its purpose is likely geared more specifically towards space weaponry. Much like its global counterparts Russia and China, the United States is working on a new generation of military technology for space. The Air Force tends to not disclose the X37B’s payloads, leading experts to conjecture that it may be carrying sensors, spy satellites or even munitions. The Air Force certainly denies such allegations, saying the X-37B never carries weapons, which would be a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

The unmanned X-37B is scheduled to launch into low-Earth orbit on May 16, 2020. It will ride atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The last time the space drone was launched it was carried by the Falcon 9 made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The official goal of that mission was test “experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes in the long duration space environment.”

Boeing X-37B Space Plane – What You Need To Know

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Boeing X-37B Space Plane – What You Need To Know

The space plane’s first mission took place in 2010. Subsequent missions have seen seen it stay out longer and longer. Once in orbit, it gets the power from solar panels for its on-board systems. The vehicle’s thrusters for maneuvering run on liquid fuel. Whenever the landing of the X-37B takes place, it will do so on its own, like an airplane.

The Air Force actually has two such spacecraft. They take turns going to space and getting refurbished.

First U.S. Space Force mission underway with launch of Atlas 5 rocket

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First U.S. Space Force mission started with the launch of Atlas 5 rocket – 3/26/2020

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