The U.S. Air Force’s mysterious spaceplane is preparing its return to orbit, where it could stay for more than two years. Out of sight, and out of mind.
“I think the most interesting part is how secret it is,” said Carter Palmer, space systems analyst at Newtown, Conn.-based Forecast International. “What they’re trying to do is anyone’s guess.”
Saturday’s planned launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will be the sixth mission for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. Since its first launch in 2010, the vehicle has spent seven years and 10 months in space.
"Each launch represents a significant milestone and advancement in terms of how we build, test, and deploy space capabilities in a rapid and responsive manner," Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations, said in a news release.
The Air Force owns the spaceplane, but the Space Force, an independent component in the Department of the Air Force, is responsible for its launch, on-orbit operations and landing. The X-37B is scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Saturday at 7:24 a.m. CT, though on Thursday morning United Launch Alliance said there was a 40 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch.
The X-37B has wings like a NASA space shuttle, but it’s one-fourth the size and does not carry people. A fairing, which is essentially a nose cone, will cover and protect the vehicle during its ascent into space.
The Air Force touts the vehicle for its ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth. This upcoming mission will attach a new service module to the vehicle to host additional experiments.
Experiments it will carry into space include a NASA study examining the effects of radiation on seeds used to grow food and a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory experiment that will turn solar power into radio frequency microwave energy that could be transmitted to the ground.
“In today’s age of electrons, space systems track storms, locate stranded motorists, timestamp credit card transactions, and monitor treaty compliance,” Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said in the news release. “Demonstrating the department’s innovation, this X-37B mission will host more experiments than any prior missions.”
She also said the launch “pushes the boundaries for reusable space systems.”
Still, Phil Smith, a space industry analyst at analytics and engineering firm Bryce Space and Technology, said it’s unfortunate that the X-37B is kept so secretive. The broader aerospace community could learn a lot from these systems and their lengthy exposures to the harsh environment of space.
And outside of the aerospace community, the spaceplane doesn’t capture a lot of buzz.
“It goes into space and then it stays up there so long that people forget about it,” Smith said. “There’s no real way for people to get excited about something they don’t see a whole lot.”