On May 17, 2020, the Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6) of the X-37B space plane was launched by the U.S. Space Force. The all-automated spacecraft, which can go back into Earth’s atmosphere, is getting close to the orbital record of 780 days, which was set by the OTV-5 in 2019.
The X-37B is an unmanned spacecraft that was made by Boeing. It was made to help long-term space goals by using reusable vehicle technologies. The spacecraft can work in low-Earth orbit, 240–800 km (150–500 miles) above the Earth. It is the first vehicle since the space shuttle that can bring experiments back to Earth.
Boeing’s page for this spacecraft says that compared to the Space Shuttle, the X-37B is one-fourth the size. It has a lot of firsts in the space industry, like the use of an avionics system that automates all de-orbiting and landing functions, as well as flight controls and braking that don’t use any hydraulics.
The space plane is made out of a light composite material instead of aluminum, and it has a new generation of ceramic and silica tiles that are made of a single toughened piece. Boeing also says that the X-37B is made to be easy to operate and maintain, which makes it affordable.
The X-37B has flown before.
In 2010, the X-37B, OTV-1 took its first flight. For its launch, the spaceship was attached to a vehicle that sends it into orbit. The spacecraft came back to Earth’s atmosphere after 224 days in orbit and landed at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Boeing says that the space plane can stay in orbit for up to 270 days, but missions with the X-37B have been longer than the ones that used the X-37A. OTV-2 was in orbit for 468 days, while OTV-3 was there for over 674 days. When OTV-4 was launched in 2015, it was in orbit for 718 days. The last mission to end, OTV-5, was in orbit for 780 days.
So far, OTV-6 has been in orbit for 773 days, which is just one week less than the record. We don’t know how long OTV-6 is supposed to stay up there right now.
Launch of the X-37B space plane
Even with all of its features and accomplishments, the X-37B’s main goals have been kept secret for most of its existence, which is now more than a decade. Due to the lack of information about what the space plane is for, Russia has said that it could be carrying nuclear warheads as well as being used for surveillance.
Even though this is still a mystery, the U.S. Space Force talks about some of the onboard missions. The Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) experiment to turn solar energy into radio frequency microwave energy is one of the things on board the OTV-6.
Space.com said that OTV-6 is also the first X-37B mission to use a service module to hold experiments. This module is attached to the back of the vehicle and increases the amount of experiments that can be sent into orbit. The OTV-6 also has two NASA experiments that will study how space affects material sample plates and seeds that will be used to grow food.
When OTV-6 comes back to Earth, we will learn some interesting things about science.