US military drone lands safely after spending record-breaking 908 days in space

With 3,774 days in space under its belt, the solar-powered X-37B has already traveled more than 1.3 billion miles.
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X-37 spacecraft, artist's rendition.
X-37 spacecraft, artist's rendition.

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After a record-breaking 908 days in orbit for its sixth mission, a U.S. military drone touched down at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, early on Saturday.

The tiny space-shuttle X-37B, powered by solar energy carrying out scientific tests, broke the prior mission record, which took 780 days to complete, according to several media reports

"Since the X-37B's first launch in 2010, it has shattered records and provided our nation with an unrivaled capability to rapidly test and integrate new space technologies," stated Jim Chilton, a senior vice president for Boeing, its developer.

The unmanned, reusable aircraft that the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and the U.S. Space Force jointly operate, known as Orbital Test Vehicle 6, was put into orbit by a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on May 17, 2020.

The spacecraft was home to a service module for the first time, which contained experiments for the Naval Research Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and other institutions.  

The module disengaged from the vehicle before de-orbiting to guarantee a secure landing.

Experiments in Space

The FalconSat-8 satellite, which was created by academy cadets in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory, was one of the experiments. The project was to catch sunlight and turn it into direct current electrical energy. It is still in orbit after being deployed in October 2021.

The Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space experiment (METIS-2) was one of NASA's projects aboard the aircraft. Scientists will use the data to comprehend how the space environment affects various types of materials.

One of the experiments was also to examine how long-term space exposure affected seeds.

This is the first time a service module to house extra experiments was carried out on the OTV-6 mission.

X-37B unwrapped after ten years

The X-37B was kept under wraps by the Air Force for ten years, but the Space Force is now proudly displaying it. 

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The spacecraft is a variation of the X-37A that NASA created in the late 1990s to launch from the Space Shuttle. 

Later, the Defense Department took ownership of the program. Since the plane's inaugural flight in 2010, there have been two X-37B spacecraft, which were initially intended for missions of 270 days.

"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," said Gen. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations.

According to Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, the X-37B program director at the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, "The X-37B continues to push the boundaries of experimentation, enabled by an elite government and industry team behind the scenes."

Before landing, the service module which disengaged from the OTV will be disposed of, according to the Space Force, in accordance with best procedures designed to lessen the quantity of space trash in orbit, reported SpaceNews magazine. 

"With the service module added, this was the most we've ever carried to orbit on the X-37B," said Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing Space and Launch.

After having 3,774 days in space under its belt, the X-37B has already traveled more than 1.3 billion miles.

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