Space Force's X-37B space plane has been in orbit for 900 days and counting

The space plane has by far beat its previous flight record of 780 days.
Ameya Paleja
The X-37B Space plane.
The X-37B Space plane.

US Air Force 

The U.S. Space Force's highly secretive X-37B space plane has created a new record by staying up in orbit for over 900 days now, Space.com has reported. Launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on May 17, 2020, the space plane has by far beat its previous flight record of 780 days.

The X-37B allows the U.S. to continue carrying out experiments in space, even after its Space Shuttle program has been shut down. The autonomous aircraft is relatively smaller than a shuttle and can be quickly sent to orbit on a launch vehicle. However, in the recent past, the reusable plane has spent more days in space than on the ground.

How many missions for the X-37B?

The X-37B is currently on its sixth mission named Orbital Test Vehicle 6 (OTV-6), which follows the five previously successful missions, each superseding the previous one with regard to the time spent in orbit.

The first such mission launched in 2010 lasted less than a year, but the very next one, OTV-2, launched in 2011, spent 468 days in orbit before making a landing at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. While OTV-3 spent 674 days in orbit, the following mission, OTV-4, crossed the 700-day mark and completed 718 days in orbit, and landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the first to do so among the OTV rides.

Space Force's X-37B space plane has been in orbit for 900 days and counting
The X-37B prior to OTV-1

OTV-5, which blasted off to space in September 2017, remained in orbit for 780 days, and the subsequent mission, OTV-6, has now completed over 900 days.

What does the X-37B do in space?

For all its achievements, the missions of the X-37B remain highly secretive. Speculation is rife that the spaceplane powered by solar panels and lithium-ion batteries is working on surveillance technology or has even been deploying experiments on satellites in low-earth orbits.

However, the U.S. Space Force, which has been handling operations of the space plane, since 2019 has revealed scant details of its missions. During a media engagement event in 2020, the Space Force provided details of three experiments onboard the OTV-6.

The first among them was a plate that would evaluate the reaction of certain components in space, while another was designed to study the impact of space radiation on seeds. The third experiment was designed by the Naval Research Laboratory and was working on converting solar power into microwave energy and then transmitting it to the Earth.

The space plane also has other experiments onboard that we do not know about, but the long flight itself is also providing large amounts of data about avionics, thermal protection systems, electromechanical flight systems advanced propulsion systems, and autonomous orbital flight, Space.com said in its report.

The X-37B isn't the only space plane in orbit, though. On August 4 this year, China launched its own orbital space plane, called 53357/2022-093A, which has been going around our planet as well. Details of its mission are also scanty, but China is catching up to U.S. capabilities very quickly.

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