Eyes on you –
The space plane spent (days, 17 hours in space.
Early on Sunday, the US Air Force announced that its X – 37 B space plane had returned to Earth, touching down at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida. The uncrewed space plane had spent (days, 17 hours in space, breaking its own long-duration record.
During four previous missions dating back to 2010, the X – 37 B had previously flown for as long as (days, 20 hours — during a period from May, 2015 through May, 2017. The latest missionlaunchedon September 7, 2017 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.
As ever, the biggest question surrounding the Air Force’s space plane concerned what it was up to during its long flight in low- Earth orbit. “The spaceplane conducted on-orbit experiments,” an Air Forcenews releasestated, blandly. “The distinctive ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth is unique to the X – 37 B program and enables the US to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain. “
According to Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director, this fifth flight of the X – 37 B successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, as well as providing a ride for small satellites. (It is not clear whether the space vehicle deployed these satellites. If so, the lack of disclosure may violate the United Nations Registration Convention satellite expert Jonathan McDowellnoted on Twitter).
The X – 37 B resembles NASA’s space shuttle, but at less than 10 meters in length it is considerably smaller. The vehicle’s cargo bay can hold something about the size of a standard refrigerator. Sourceshave suggestedit serves several purposes for the Air Force, including as an in-orbit test bed for developing advanced surveillance sensors.
It is part of the Air Force’s goal of developing more nimble, responsive capabilities in space. Reusable space planes such as the X – 37 B and rapid-launch capabilities are among the needs the military sees as it confronts space as a “warfighting” domain in the 21 st century. In this case, almost all of this mission was reusable, as the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage landed safely shortly after its launch.
The Air Force said it will launch a sixth mission of the space plane sometime in 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Listing image by US Air Force