USAF X-37B space plane sets new record for mission length

Max Blenkin

The US Air Force’s mysterious X-37B plane has set a modest new record, staying in space longer than any previous X-37B mission.

USAF X-37B space plane sets new record for mission length
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As of Friday that was 721 days, which is getting close to two years in orbit.

The previous longest mission, called Orbital Test Vehicle 4 (OTV-4), was for 717 days starting in May 2015. The current OTV-5 mission started in September 2017 when the craft was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Not much is known about X-37B and even less about what it does up there.

The US Air Force provides a broad overview of X-37B missions – testing reusable spacecrafts and conducting secret experiments on guidance, navigation, and thermal protection systems as well as experimental flight and propulsion technology.

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But the details of those experiments remain secret.

"The X-37B is the first vehicle since NASA's Shuttle Orbiter with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis, but with an on-orbit time of 270 days or greater, the X-37B can stay in space for much longer," the USAF fact sheet says.

The Boeing X-37B is a small unmanned winged spacecraft resembling a miniature space shuttle, intended for secret military missions for the USAF and US Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA).

We definitely know it’s out there doing stuff as last month a Dutch satellite spotter named Ralf Vandebergh managed to spot and photograph the X-37B in orbit 300 kilometres above the Earth.

Vandebergh wasn’t using an iPhone or even a quality digital camera to obtain his images. He was actually using a 10-inch F/4,8 aperture Newtonian telescope with an Astrolumina ALccd 5L-11 mono CMOS camera. Tracking was fully manual through a 6×30 finderscope, he explained.

While, there are a number of images of X-37B on the ground on the internet, capturing it in space was quite an achievement.

OTV started out as a NASA project in 1999, with Boeing selected to perform development of what was called X-37A at its Phantom Works.

This subsequently transferred to the US Department of Defense, with the USAF subsequently developing its own version called X-37B.

One X-37A was made and two X-37Bs, with length of nine metres, wingspan of 4.5 metres and maximum take-off weight of just under five tonnes.

The first mission started in April 2010.

So far there have been just four completed missions. Mission OTV-1 ran for 224 days, OTV-2 for 468 days,OTV-3 for 674 days and OTV-4 for 717. OTV-5 is still up there.

The first four launches were aboard Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral while the fifth was on a Falcon 9.

The next launch is scheduled for December, which suggests OTV-5 will end its record-breaking mission some time soon.

There’s been plenty of speculation aboard what X-37B does out there, including keeping an eye on China’s Tiangong-1 space station module and testing new types of drive and sensor systems.

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