Among all the scientific programs promoted by the various branches of the United States Department of Defense, the star of the X-37B unmanned spacecraft is one of the most secret and advanced. Their history includes a total of 6 orbital flights aboard different rockets and where they tested advanced technologies such as military telecommunication systems. Next December 10, the seventh will happen, this time and for the first time it will be integrated with a Falcon Heavy from the SpaceX company.
This mission aims to operate reusable spacecraft in new orbital regimes, experiment with future spatial domain awareness technology and examine the effects of radiation on materials provided by NASA, as explained by the Space Force of the North American country.
“We are excited to expand the scope of the X-37B’s reusable capability, using the flight-proven service module and the Falcon Heavy rocket to perform many experiments for the Department of the Air Force and its partners,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, X-37B program manager.
X-37B spacecraft in the Boeing hangar
One of the few experiments going on in flight and made public is NASA’s Seeds-2. This is a seed radiation exposure test of plants to see how they behave during long-term space flight. The test development will build on previous tests, “paving the way for future manned space missions.”
The secret ship
In 1998, NASA issued a notice requesting proposals from the aerospace industry for what was then called Future-X, a flight demonstration vehicle for “testing and validation of new technologies which will greatly reduce the cost of space transportation.” Boeing finally won the contract that same year and in 1999 began a 4-year period of collaboration between the two entities for the development of the vehicle.
Landing of the X-37B on its second mission
Boeing took over as the basis of its experimental vehicle X-40 which he developed for the Air Force of the United States as an atmospheric field demonstrator platform. The X-40 has some shortcomings such as a propulsion system and limited interior space, something they quickly solved by rescaling the fuselage of the plane and integrating an engine.
The first prototype of the X-37 family was the X-37A which was used as a test bed to study controlled atmospheric descent. He was part of the first Gliding vehicle tests conducted by NASA, which has not yet integrated an engine for this vehicle. It made its first flight attached to a mother plane in 2005 and in 2006 its first solo launch was made.
The success shown in the next flights made the US Air Force decide to developing its own platform under the Orbital Test Vehicle program (OTV), which crystallized X-37B. It was a version that was quickly modified to meet the operational and technological needs of the Air Force, with the Space Force later becoming an independent entity with which the vehicles are now in service.
The Since then, the two units built are inserted to successfully complete different missions until reaching the sixth. TODAY They face seventh aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
X-37B vehicles with a capsule in the background of the United States Air Force
The vehicle has a length of 8.9 meters, a wingspan of 4.5 and a height of 2.90. Inside it can hold 227 kilograms of cargo that will be used by the Space Force to conduct its experiments. she the maximum takeoff weight increases to 5,000 kilograms where the fuel for its propellant is attached.
It has been proven to have an orbital speed of 28,000 kilometers per hour in low Earth orbit and a design autonomy of 270 days, although in the sixth mission took 908 days in space. To power the onboard systems it has solar panels connected to a battery.
The sixth mission represents a very important development for the OTV program. It flew on May 17, 2020 aboard the Atlas V that is under the command of the United States Space Force and It was built in orbit for two and a half yearsset a record for remaining in orbit by an X-37B.
This is the first mission to introduce a service module that “expands the capabilities of the spacecraft and allows it. hosting more experiments than any previous mission“, as explained by the Space Force. The spacecraft carried the Photovoltaic Radio Frequency Antenna Module experiment, a program led by the Naval Research Laboratory that converts solar energy into radio frequency microwave energy.
Enjoy the X-37B computer in space Boeing
As well, it included two other NASA experiments in “study the results of radiation and other spatial effects on a sample plate of materials and seeds used to grow food.” In the seventh mission, launched on December 10, the second part of this scientific test will be conducted. The mission also deployed FalconSat-8, a small satellite made by the United States United States Air Force Academy.
“The X-37B management and Boeing teams are working together to create a more responsive, flexible and adaptable platform for experimentation“said William D. Bailey, director of the Department of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office. “The work they have done to streamline processes and adapt to emerging technologies will help our nation learn better. how to operate and return. environment”.
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