A day later than planned, the X-37B space plane has gone back into low Earth orbit for its sixth mission. The vehicle launched aboard a United Launch Alliance rocket on the morning of May 17th. It’s the first X-37B mission under the Space Force’s oversight (though the Air Force still owns the spacecraft) and is considered the most ambitious mission for the machine to date given the sheer number of experiments. Many of them are secret (ULA wasn’t even allowed to show the launch past a certain point), but there are some details about what’s aboard.
Space.com noted that the X-37B’s new service module, a cylindrical add-on beneath the spacecraft, lets it carry more payloads than before. It’s deploying a small satellite (FalconSat-8), two NASA projects studying the effects of radiation on seeds and other materials and an experiment that uses microwave energy to beam power. The mission will help the US develop abilities it can use to “maintain superiority in the space domain,” according to the Space Force.
For some, the duration of the flight may be the real mystery. The fifth mission ended after a record 780 days in orbit. It’s not certain if this sixth sortie will challenge that record. The number of experiments could contribute to an extended trip, but it’s not clear how much headroom the X-37B has at this stage. If history is any indication, the duration will be measured in years.