The mysterious Luftwaffe spy plane, called the X-37B, flies back into space for its sixth Earth orbit mission on Saturday morning. As is common with this spaceship, its precise purpose is a mystery, although the Air Force says the vehicle will conduct a number of experiments on this journey and will test new systems in space before they return to Earth.
This launch takes place just over six months after the X-37B returned to orbit from its record-breaking fifth mission. The space plane, which looks a bit like a miniature space shuttle, landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 27 after spending a total of 780 days or more than two years in space. This flight was the longest X-37B mission in space to date. The vehicle has now spent a total of seven years and ten months in orbit. This upcoming flight could extend the spacecraft̵
The Air Force claims that the experiments and technologies that the X-37B entails “enable the United States to develop the space capabilities required to maintain space superiority more efficiently and effectively.” This mission will involve more experiments than usual thanks to a new service module – a cylindrical structure at the bottom of the spacecraft that will be filled with technologies to be tested in orbit. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to conduct experiments,” said Randy Walden, director and program director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, in a statement. “By integrating a service module into this mission, we can further expand the spacecraft’s capabilities and conduct more experiments than on any previous mission.”
While most of the experiments on this flight have been kept under wraps, some of the technologies developed for this mission have been released. Along with the X-37B is a small satellite called the FalconSat-8, developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and carrying five experimental payloads. The spacecraft is said to use the FalconSat-8 when it reaches orbit. NASA is also sending two experiments on this flight to investigate how space radiation breaks down certain materials and seeds that are needed for food. And the US Naval Research Laboratory has undertaken an experiment that “converts solar energy into high frequency microwave energy” and can then be sent to the ground for use.
The X-37B is still considered a US Air Force asset, but the newly minted Space Force will oversee the mission from launch to landing. The X-37B’s orbit is the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, which launched this spacecraft on four of its previous five flights. The spacecraft’s last voyage was with the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which launched the X-37B on September 7, 2017 for its fifth mission.
As this launch takes place during the pandemic, both the Air Force and the United Launch Alliance are paying a small tribute to those affected by COVID-19 on this flight. On the side of the Atlas V rocket, a written message entitled “In memory of the victims of COVID-19 and as a tribute to all first responders and front workers” was attached.
ULA wants to take off on Saturday at 8:24 a.m.CET, although the weather looks a little doubtful for good conditions with a probability of only 40 percent. The company will broadcast the launch live at 8:04 am ET. So if you get up early this weekend, you can tune in live to see this mysterious vehicle fly.