The US Air Force's X-37B spacecraft landed landed on Earth (October 27) after a record of 780 days in orbit and launched the fifth ultra-long mission for the military's mini-shuttle fleet.
The X-37B mission for the Orbital Test Vehicle 5 (OTV-5) ended with a smooth autonomous deployment at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3:51 am EDT ( 0751 GMT) in the air Force officials said. The mission originally started with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on September 7, 2017.
With the successful landing, OTV-5 broke the previous 718-day X-37B mission record set by the OTV-4 mission in May 2017 was set up. OTV-5 is the second X-37B mission to land in NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility (OTV-4 was the first), with previous missions landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
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"The safe return of this spacecraft is the result of an innovative partnership between government and industry," said Air Force General Director David L. Goldfein, in a statement. "The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress agrees, for the US space forces."
The US Air Force has at least two reusable X-37B spaceships in its fleet and both have flown several flights. The solar-powered spacecraft were built by Boeing and have a miniature payload bay for experiments or smaller satellites. They were originally intended to spend up to 240 days in orbit.
"The X-37B continues to show the importance of a reusable spacecraft," said Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett in the same statement. "Each mission in a row improves the space capabilities of our nation."
Air Force officials have stated that the exact nature of the X-37B missions is classified, though they have dropped hints on the type of experiments that OTV-5 performed in orbit. One of the payloads was the Air Force Research Laboratory's Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, an experiment designed to "test long-lasting experimental electronics and oscillating heat-pipe technologies in the space environment."
OTV-5 also entered higher-orbit orbit than previous X-37B flights, suggesting that new experiments or technology tests were on the program. In a statement released today, air force officials confirmed that OTV-5 had carried out several experiments and put smaller satellites into orbit.
"With a successful landing today, the X-37B has completed its longest flight to date and successfully met all of its mission objectives," said Randy Walden, head of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office research lab experiments, as well as providing a ride for small satellites.
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The spacecraft was originally developed by NASA in 1
37B vehicles are 29 feet (8.8 meters) long, 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) high and have a wing span of just under 15 feet (4.6 meters)). Their payload bays are about the size of a pickup bed approximately 7 feet long and 4 feet wide (2.1 by 1.2 meters).
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The first X-37B mission, OTV-1, launched in April 2010 and was in orbit for 224 days. OTV-2 launched in March 2011, was the first flight of a second X-37B and was in orbit for 468 days.
OTV-3 was the first return flight of an X-37B (with the OTV-1 vehicle) and launched in December 2012 with a 674-day flight. The OTV-4 mission started in May 2015 (the second flight of the OTV-2 vehicle) and spent 718 days in space. The first four OTV missions were launched with Atlas V rockets, with OTV-5 marking the first deployment of a SpaceX Falcon 9 for the fleet.
"This spacecraft is a key component of the space community, and this milestone demonstrates our commitment to conducting experiments on America's future space exploration," said Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Keen, program manager of the X-37B, in the Air Force Declaration. "Congratulations to the X-37B team for their work."