Sunday, March 26, 2017

U.S. Air Force's Secretive X-37B Space Plane Breaks Orbital Record



CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The fourth mission (OTV-4) of the U.S. Air Force's secretive X-37B 'mini-shuttle' broke the record for the most time the space plane has spent in space on Saturday, March 25, 2017. 

The previous X-37B record of 674 days in space was set by the third mission (OTV-3) which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 12, 2012 and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 17, 2014. The X-37B was originally designed for orbital missions lasting 270 days.



X-37B Mission Durations

Mission  Days
OTV-1     224
OTV-2     468
OTV-3     674
OTV-4     675+

X-37B May Land In Florida For The First Time

The U.S. Air Force left open the possibility of landing the X-37B on the space shuttle landing strip at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


In 2014, Boeing began consolidation of its X-37B operations at Kennedy Space Center by converting the former space shuttle facility, OPF-1, to a facility that would enable the U.S. Air Force to land, recover, refurbish, and re-launch the reusable unmanned space plane.  

Prior to consolidation, the 29-foot-long X-37B had launched from both Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida - but the space plane only landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

What Is Aboard This X-37B?

While most payloads are classified, the U.S. Air Force made an unusual disclosure that OTV-4 has a Hall thruster experiment aboard.

A Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon. While producing comparatively low thrust relative to conventional rocket engines, Hall thrusters provide significantly greater specific impulse, or fuel economy. This results in increased payload carrying capacity and a greater number of on-orbit maneuvers for a spacecraft using Hall thrusters rather than traditional rocket engines.

Another unclassified payload that is aboard the X-37B is an experiment for NASA that will expose almost 100 different materials samples to a space environment for more than 200 days. 


Image and video credit: USAF