US Army X-37B spaceplane sets new duration record

Records keep breaking for the US Space Force’s X-37B robotic space plane.

Effective today (July 7), the X-37B has been in Earth orbit for 781 days, breaking its previous record of 780. The Boeing-designed and built reusable vehicle is currently on its sixth mission, known as Orbital Test Vehicle-6 or OTV-6, which spear May 17, 2020.

Boeing space announced the milestone today (opens in a new tab) on Twitter, writing that the spaceplane “set another endurance record – as it has done on every mission since its launch in 2010” while thanking the US Air Force, the US space forceand other members of the X-37B team.

Related: US Space Force’s Secret X-37B Spaceplane: 10 Surprising Facts

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The X-37B’s current mission includes several classified payloads, but some of its onboard experiences have been made public. One such experiment deployed last year tested the United States Naval Research Laboratory Photovoltaic radio frequency antenna moduleor PRAM, a small device the size of a pizza box aimed at converting solar energy into microwaves that can then be beamed back to Earth from orbit.

Other payloads launched on OTV-6 include the system designed by the US Air Force Academy FalconSat-8 Satellite (opens in a new tab) which itself carries five experimental payloads and two NASA experiments designed to test the effects of radiation on plant seeds and to assess the effects of space on various materials.

The general design of the X-37B is similar to that of the now retired NASA. spaceshipalthough the X-37B is much smaller: the military spaceplane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.5 feet (2.9 m) high, and has a wingspan of just under 15 feet (4.6m).

At launch, the X-37B weighs 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms). The X-37B is designed to operate at a range of altitudes, from 150 to 500 miles (240 to 805 kilometers). The craft features fully automated deorbit and landing capabilities and a fully electromechanical control system that eliminates the need for hydraulics. In a company profile (opens in a new tab)Boeing calls the X-37B “one of the world’s newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.”

Although there are rumors or theories that the X-37B could be a test bed for orbital weapons or could be used for capture enemy satellitesexperts doubt these assertions, arguing that the aircraft is far too small and not maneuverable enough to be used for these roles. The spaceplane’s primary role is likely to be testing new sensor systems and other technologies in orbit, as US military officials have long claimed.

While OTV-6 just set a new duration record for the X-37B program, 781 days is far from the overall spaceflight mark. Many Earth observation satellites operate for 10 years or more, for example, and NASA Traveler 1 and the Voyager 2 spacecraft are still alive in interstellar space, nearly 45 years after they lifted off.

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