Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane lands after spending 780 days in orbit

X-37B space plane
The Air Force’s X-37B space plane lands at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Air Force Photo)

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane landed today after spending a record-setting 780 days in orbit testing hush-hush technologies for long-duration spaceflight.

Touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida came at 3:51 a.m. ET (12:51 a.m. PT), the Air Force said in a statement. The landing marked the end of the fifth test mission for the uncrewed mini-space shuttle, which experts say appears to be part of an effort to develop more versatile, faster-acting and longer-running spacecraft for remote sensing and satellite deployment.

“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in today’s statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”

Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said the X-37B “successfully completed all mission objectives.”

“This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites,” he said.

One of the experiments is known to have tested the long-term performance of oscillating heat pipes, which could provide a low-cost way to cool high-powered electronics in orbit. When the X-37 was launched from Kennedy Space Center back in September 2017, the Air Force said the mission would also check the space plane’s performance and maneuverability in a high-inclination orbit.

This mission, known as OTV-5, marked the first time that an X-37B was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket instead of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5. The 780-day duration exceeded the 718-day record that had been set by the fourth test mission in May 2017. Three earlier missions took place in 2010, 2011-2012 and 2012-2014. Total test time over all five missions amounts to 2,875 days, or nearly seven years.

The Air Force is thought to have at least two of the robotic space planes, which were built by Boeing as part of a project that started out under NASA’s wing but was transferred to the Pentagon in 2004. The planes were designed for a 270-day mission duration in orbit but have now nearly tripled that time frame.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said the X-37B’s success is “the result of the innovative partnership between government and Industry.”

“The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force,” Goldfein said.

The next X-37B launch is set for 2020.

Update for 3:05 p.m. PT Oct. 27: Walden’s reference to giving some small satellites a ride on the X-37B raised some eyebrows among satellite experts, including Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation::

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