The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6), the U.S. Space Force’s unmanned, reusable spaceplane, successfully deorbited and landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Nov. 12, 2022, at 05:22 a.m.
This was the sixth mission of the reusable Space Plane, built by Boeing and jointly operated by the U.S. Space Force and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Known as Orbital Test Vehicle 6, it was launched to orbit on May 17, 2020, aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
OTV -6 was the first mission to introduce a service module-a ring attached to the rear of the vehicle, expanding the number of experiments that can be hosted during a mission.
“This mission highlights the Space Force’s focus on collaboration in space exploration and expanding low-cost access to space for our partners, within and outside of the Department of the Air Force (DAF)”Gen. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations.
The service module successfully separated from the OTV before landing, which is a necessary activity due to the aerodynamic forces experienced by the X-37B vehicle upon re-entry. In the coming weeks, the service module will be disposed of in accordance with best practices.
“The deliberate manner in which we conduct onorbit operations-to include the service module disposal-speaks to the United States’ commitment to safe and responsible space practices, particularly as the issue of growing orbital debris threatens to impact global space operations.”Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall
The Mission hosted a Naval Research Laboratory’s experiment called Photovoltaic Radiofrequency Antenna Module: it successfully harnessed solar rays outside of Earth’s atmosphere and aimed to transmit power to the ground through radio frequency microwave energy. Additionally, the U.S. Air Force Academy’s FalconSat-8 was successfully deployed in October 2021 and remains in orbit.
Moreover, multiple NASA Experiments were deployed: the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS-2) included thermal control coatings, printed electronic materials, and candidate radiation shielding materials. NASA scientists will leverage data collected after the materials have spent 900+ days in orbit and compare observed effects to ground simulations. This is helpful to validate and improve the precision of space environment Models. Another NASA experiment aims to investigate the effect of long-duration space exposure on seeds.
About the X-37B
The X-37B Space Plane is a derivative of the X-37A designed by NASA in the late 1990s, originally planned to deploy from the Space Shuttle. The program was later transferred to the Defense Department, and nowadays there are two X-37B Spacecraft. Both X-37B were initially designed for missions of 270 days, but as we can see, they have greatly exceeded that goal since the Spacecraft’s first mission in 2010.
The Air Force, however, kept for a decade the X-37B Program completely hidden from the public and the media, but the Space Force is now finally showing it off. We don’t know when we’ll see another X-37B in Orbit, but the Program is definitely still at the very start.