Air Force's Mysterious X-37B Space Plane to Launch Next Week

The U.S. Air Force's covert X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is scheduled to launch Sept. 7.

For the first time, the experimental space plane will hitch a ride aboard Elon Musk's SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the service announced Thursday.

Marking the fifth mission for the X-37B, the OTV "will also be launched into, and landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B's orbital envelope," the Air Force said in a release.

The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which is responsible for the X-37B's experimental operations, has been working to advance the aircraft's performance and flexibility "as a space technology demonstrator and host platform for experimental payloads," the release states.

While the payloads and most activities of the robotic X-37B are classified, the Air Force said this mission will carry "the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-II) payload to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long-duration space environment."

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"The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program," said Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

"It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community," he said in the statement.

United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., has launched the unmanned vehicle's previous four missions via its Atlas V rockets.

The OTV completed its fourth mission on May 7, 2017, landing after 718 days in orbit and extending its total number of days spent in orbit to 2,085, the service said.

The program hit a milestone during its fourth rotation on March 25 after the X-37B spent 675 days in orbit, surpassing its previous record of 674 days.

 

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