X-37B Space Plane Returns In a Record-setting Triumph: When it first went to orbit, it was the property of the U.S. Air Force, then when it landed, it was owned by U.S. Space Force. That’s how long the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 spent conducting its last mission.
Times have changed since it first went up 908 days ago. The X-37B record-setting robotic space plane was in orbit for around 2.5 years. Now, we are learning more about what that craft was doing in space for so long.
X-37B: Full of Significant Experimental Data
The unmanned X-37B returned to earth at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 12. While some observers, including those in China, believe the X-37B was on some kind of military reconnaissance or even “bombing” mission, it appears the reusable space plane was focused on civilian scientific research. It is possible that there could have been some experiments of a military nature, but that remains classified and hidden from public view.
Could Crops Someday Grow on Other Planets?
The craft first investigated space and radiation effects on plant seeds. These early data acquisition efforts are a large step forward in obtaining insights into potentially growing crops on other planets.
Unleash the Potential of Solar Power from Space
The X-37B also aimed to evaluate how well spacecraft can collect solar power and send it back to earth via radio frequency microwaves. This effort is called the Photovoltaic Radiofrequency Antenna Module. This could better unmanned power flight someday.
Can Generation Z Air Force Cadets Launch Their Own Satellite?
The X-37B even deployed a satellite fashioned by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy called the FalconSat-8. This had five distinct tests, including a “plasma thruster, a metamaterials antenna, a carbon nanotubes experiment, and an energy surge and control device,” according to an Air Force Academy Foundation news release.
Service Module Enables Better Research
The X-37B had a “ring-shaped service module” fastened to the vehicle’s rear. This was believed to hold the scientific payload. The primary payload module is about the size of a pickup truck bed. This module is similar to what the Space Shuttle deployed.
The folks over at The Warzone speculated that the X-37B’s service module also takes after the Air Force Research Laboratory’s EAGLE “ring-shaped payload adapter.” This module can be maneuvered in space after it has jettisoned, and it can handle “six fixed or deployable payloads.”
NASA Is Another Partner of the X-37B Program
This last X-37B mission carried the largest payload in history. It also contained experiments for NASA, including the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space, or METIS-2. This “tested thermal control coatings, printed electronic materials, and candidate radiation shielding materials,” according to an Air Force news release.
Let’s Get This Spaceplane Back in Orbit
Space Force is probably itching to get the X-37B filled with experiments and launch it back into orbit again. This will be a feather in the cap of the new military service branch. It shows that Space Force, the Air Force, the Air Force Academy, and NASA can work together across bureaucracies for common goals. This whole of government approach will be important going forward as the American objectives for space run the gamut from working on moon missions, lengthening stays at the International Space Station, improving space telescopes, and pondering voyages to Mars.
The X-37B’s success could also spawn other larger unmanned reusable space planes that could have bigger payloads. This could usher in a new era for space research. The X-37B cannot get back into space fast enough. The program sets records every time it flies, so the reusable spaceplane has a full and fruitful life ahead of it.
X-37B Photo Essay
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.