The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

Since 2010, OTV-7, an uncrewed space plane, has conducted numerous technology experiments on long orbital flights. Most recently, its service module enabled OTV-7 to host additional experiments.

Its cargo included a Naval Research Laboratory project to test technology to convert sunlight to electricity and NASA experiments on how long-duration space exposure affects materials and seeds. Furthermore, FalconSat-8 developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy was also deployed.

It’s a pickup truck with a payload bay

The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, commonly referred to as a space plane with a payload bay larger than that of a pickup truck, has been flying since 2002 on five missions totalling 2,865 days in orbit. Though little information is released by the Pentagon about what exactly happens up there, speculation exists as to its purpose — possibly testing new technologies for space weapons development.

Barrett describes the X-37B as an “agile and lean” vehicle capable of further developing reusable spaceplane technology as well as conducting experiments in orbit, according to Barrett. In 2019, this effort earned them prestigious Collier Trophy award for pushing “the boundaries of flight and space exploration”.

OTV-5 will include testing of an Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader II developed by Air Force Research Laboratory; new electronic components; oscillating heat pipes designed for long duration space travel; as well as oscillating heat pipes designed for long duration space exploration. Although usually hidden away, civilian skywatchers have seen glimpses of OTV-5 through telescopes at Edinburgh, Scotland-based satellite tracker Russell Eberst and Netherlands-based skysleuth Cees Bassa who both tracked OTV-5 with telescopes – Live Science reports.

It’s a test vehicle

The Boeing-developed X-37B unmanned spaceplane resembles NASA’s retired shuttles but is approximately one-fourth the size and does not carry humans. It takes off vertically like a rocket and operates between 150 miles and 500 miles high in space.

Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and NASA are working together on an Orbital Test Vehicle initiative, with Boeing serving as prime contractor. The X-37B has been used for both military and NASA science experiments such as testing new solar arrays that capture sunlight to generate direct current electricity, or studying long-duration exposure effects on seeds.

On its previous flight, the X-37B carried out initial on-orbit validation for an Aerojet engine using storable propellants. Installed on the craft in 2014, this engine uses hydrogen peroxide and JP-8 mixture as propellant to maneuver spacecraft and deorbit them more efficiently; multiple maneuvers may take place before initiating deorbit burn.

It’s a spy craft

The X-37B may not be one of NASA’s more capable spacecraft, but it serves as an excellent testbed for new technologies. Resembling a mini-shuttle in appearance and launched vertically from Atlas V or Falcon 9 rockets for long periods in orbit before returning back down like any traditional aircraft – this craft provides valuable experience testing new ideas while taking minimal amount of spacecraft resources and launchpad real estate for testing out ideas that otherwise couldn’t fly due to time or funding limitations.

OTV-7 will focus on operating in new orbital regimes and carrying experiments such as Navy research to convert solar power to radio frequency microwave energy and NASA tests on whether plant seeds can survive long duration flights into space.

The X-37B appears to have some propulsion capabilities that could potentially enhance low-flying satellites’ orbits to allow them to remain aloft longer or even rescue malfunctioning satellites and bring them back down, but more practical uses would likely require a vehicle with a larger payload bay.

It’s a weapon

The X-37B is one of two American unmanned space planes and its missions include developing reusable spaceplane technologies and conducting experiments that can be returned back to and examined on Earth, according to the Air Force. OTV-6 will carry out NASA experiments designed to measure how plant seeds fare after long duration exposure to harsh radiation environments during long duration spaceflight.

This spaceplane flies low enough in orbit that it can use Earth’s atmosphere to alter its orbit, potentially deceiving potential enemies who could otherwise predict exactly where and when it will land, former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told a conference in 2019.

More outlandish theories suggest using the X-37B as a launch vehicle for weapons like hypersonic tungsten rods to de-orbit satellites at hypersonic speeds; however, experts state these are unlikely to fall within its capabilities; nonetheless its exploits have spawned conspiracy theories about its true purpose – possibly being weaponized spaceplane with stealth capabilities to be used against other nations from orbit.

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