The U.S. Air Force Has a Super Secretive Plane That Just Spent 500 Days Orbiting Earth

by Jennifer Shea

The U.S. Air Force boasts a secret X-37B space plane that has now been orbiting the Earth for more than 500 days.

The plane, known as an Orbital Test Vehicle 6 (OTV-6), launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in May of 2020. It is an unmanned robot plane. And it is conducting classified experiments for the military, the Daily Mail reports.

This Is the First Mission to Use a Service Module

When X-37B launched, the military released a statement outlining some of the tasks it was to be performing.

Among them, deploying the FalconSat-8, a small satellite designed to conduct multiple experiments in orbit. Then it has to conduct two National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) experiments on the results of radiation and other space effects on seeds. It also has to transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy, with the help of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

“We are excited to return the X-37B to space and conduct numerous on-orbit experiments for both the Air Force and its mission partners,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Keen, the X-37B program manager, said in the statement.

This is the sixth mission for the X-37B program. In 2019, the plane landed after spending 780 days in orbit.

Yet it is the first mission in which the military has incorporated a service module to host experiments. The service model hooks onto the aft of the plane, and it provides extra experimental capacity in orbit.

“The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions,” Randy Walden, director and program executive officer for the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said.

Air Force Plane’s Mission Is a Collaboration Between Agencies

The X-37B belongs to the Air Force. But the U.S. Space Force is handling the launch, in-orbit operations and landing of the craft. The head of the Air Force also mentioned some unnamed public-private partnerships. (Perhaps with Boeing, which manufactured the plane.)

“This launch is a prime example of integrated operations between the Air Force, Space Force, and government-industry partnerships,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said. “The X-37B continues to break barriers in advancing reusable space vehicle technologies and is a significant investment in advancing future space capabilities.”

The vehicle runs on solar cells with lithium-ion batteries. And it orbits the Earth at a height of about 200 miles.

The X-37B is the first craft since the space shuttle that can cart experiments back to Earth for closer scrutiny by scientists.