KEY POINTS

  • The X-37B space plane is returning into orbit in mid-May
  • This mission will host more experiments than prior flights
  • Two NASA experiments are included

The United States Air Force will launch next week its X-37B space plane from Cape Canaveral. The secret unmanned space shuttle is also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, an experimental test platform for space technologies. This will be the spacecraft’s first mission under the newly formed U.S. military branch called Space Force.

The X-37B space plane is an aerospace vehicle that can maneuver like a spacecraft in space and fly like an aircraft in the atmosphere. It incorporates features of both spacecraft and aircraft, being a hybrid between the two. The X-37B space plane has been developed by Boeing. It began in 1999 as a NASA project and was transferred in 2004 to The Department of Defense. The X-37B is rocket-powered but lands as an unpowered glider. Officially, the Air Force is in possession of two X-37B space planes, which are reusable robotic spacecraft operated for orbital spaceflight missions.

According to Space.com, the X-37B will be put into orbit by the United Launch Alliance on an Atlas V rocket, and the launch is scheduled for May 16. The main mission of the X-37B space plane remains a secret, but there are some details the Space Force is making public. This will be an important mission that will host more experiments than prior flight, according to Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett’s statement made during a webinar.

For the first time on this spaceflight, a service module will host onboard experiments, which will allow for more payload capability. The duration of the mission is unknown, but it could be months or even years if it’s going to be anything like the others. On its prior five missions, the X-37B spent a total of almost eight years in orbit.

According to Techcrunch, the space plane’s sixth mission is an operation combining the resources of NASA, Naval Research Lab (NRL), Space Force and Air Force. One of the experiments to be performed will involve a maser (solar-powered microwave laser) built by the NRL. The mission will perform two experiments from NASA that will research how various items exposed to space react. The X-37B will also release into orbit an Air Force Academy satellite called FalconSat-8.

Boeing X-37B Boeing's X-37B OTV-1 is seen after landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 2010. Photo: U.S. Air Force