X-37B spaceplane completes its sixth mission, lands after nearly 30 months in orbit

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The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 6 carried several U.S. military and NASA science experiments

WASHINGTON — The X-37B spaceplane landed Nov. 12 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at 5:22 a.m. Eastern, setting a new endurance record after spending 908 days on orbit. Its previous record was 780 days.

This was the sixth mission of the crewless reusable spaceplane, 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 launched to orbit May 17, 2020, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. 

On this mission, the X-37B carried several U.S. military and NASA science experiments, including a Naval Research Laboratory project to capture sunlight and convert it into direct current electrical energy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy’s FalconSat-8, which remains in orbit.

One of NASA’s experiments was the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS-2). Scientists will use the data to understand the effects of the space environment on different types of materials. Another experiment was to investigate the effects of long-duration space exposure on seeds. 

The spaceplane is a derivative of the X-37A designed by NASA in the late 1990s to deploy from the Space Shuttle. The program later was transferred to the Defense Department. There are two X-37B spacecraft, which were originally designed for missions of 270 days, but have greatly exceeded that goal since the spaceplane’s first mission in 2010. 

The Air Force for a decade kept the X-37B in a cloak of secrecy, but the Space Force is now openly showing it off.

“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,” Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations, said in a statement.

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

The OTV-6 mission for the first time carried a service module to host additional experiments. 

The service module separated from the OTV before landing. The Space Force said the module will be disposed of in accordance with best practices intended to reduce the amount of space debris in orbit. 

“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.