It’s called the X-37B, and there’s not a whole lot we know about it. What began as a NASA project in 1999 to repair satellites ultimately turned into a classified project at the U.S. Air Force. Its mission? Now that’s a big mystery.
Yesterday, the mysterious spaceplane made a daytime landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Let’s take a look.
The X-37B is 29 feet long and is unmanned. During its fourth trip to space, the US Air Force’s spaceplane spent 718 days in orbit. Almost two months longer than its previous record of 674 days after landing in October 2014.
Seven years ago, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (or whatever theory you want to throw at it) began its missions to space. Since then, the vehicle has logged 2,085 days in orbit.
“The landing of OTV-4 marks another success for the X-37B program and the nation,” said Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen, X-37B program manager. “This mission once again set an on-orbit endurance record and marks the vehicle’s first landing in the state of Florida. We are incredibly pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and are excited about the data gathered to support the scientific and space communities. We are extremely proud of the dedication and hard work by the entire team.”
Details are slim about the nearly two-year stay in space, but Air Force officials did touch on one experiment being tested on this trip. It centers around a Hall thruster. Made by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the thrusters use electricity and xenon to create thrust for maneuvering satellites in space.
“The experiment will include collection of telemetry from the Hall thruster operating in the space environment as well as measurement of the thrust imparted on the vehicle. The resulting data will be used to validate and improve Hall thruster and environmental modeling capabilities, which enhance the ability to extrapolate ground test results to actual on-orbit performance,” the Air Force said before the 2015 launch.
Here’s a video of the launch in 2015. Don’t expect much past first stage separation.
And one more view of yesterday’s landing.
Something besides the secretive spaceplane landing caught my eye. In both videos, we catch a glimpse of a NASA space shuttle sitting near the runway. Which one is it? A quick Google search shows the retired space shuttles are spread out across the country.
Shuttle Atlantis – Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (Florida)
Shuttle Discovery – Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Virginia)
Shuttle Endeavour – California Science Center
Shuttle Enterprise – Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum (New York)
Atlantis is the only one sitting in the same state, and it’s definitely not resting close to the runway. So what are we seeing? It appears to be a mockup called the ‘Inspiration.’