X-37B spaceplane. Credit: Boeing

WASHINGTON — The sixth mission of the U.S. Air Force’s reusable X-37B spaceplane is scheduled to launch May 16 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The X-37B Operational Test Vehicle 6 will be launched to low Earth orbit on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office owns the Boeing-made spaceplane, which flies and lands autonomously. The U.S. Space Force is responsible for the launch, on-orbit operations and landing of the vehicle.

OTV 6 will carry more experiments than any of the previous X-37B missions, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said May 6 during an online event hosted by the Space Foundation.

Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said the upcoming X-37B mission will be the first to use a service module to host experiments. The service module is an attachment to the aft of the vehicle and “enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions,” he said in a statement.

One of the experimental payloads is FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory. The FalconSat-8 will carry five science payloads. There are also two NASA experiments to study the results of radiation and other space effects on a materials sample plate and seeds used to grow food. A U.S. Naval Research Laboratory experiment will transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy which could then be transmitted to the ground.

The Atlas 5 rocket will fly in the 501 configuration with a five-meter fairing, a single-engine upper stage and no solid rocket motors. The mission is named USSF-7.

The design and landing profile of the X-37B — weighing about 11,000 pounds and nearly 29-foot long — is similar to NASA’s Space Shuttle but it’s one-fourth the size. The most recent mission OTV 5 was launched Sept. 7, 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It landed on October 27, 2019.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...