The unmanned little spacecraft spent a record-breaking 908Â days in orbit into its sixth mission since 2017
By Kiran N. Kumar
A series of sonic booms hit Titusville to Kissimmee with flashes of secretive Space Force shipÂ X-37B waking up Florida residents and run for cover at around 5 am on Saturday morningÂ suspecting it to be a real UFO.
Soothing their fears, several social media posts replied that it was, indeed, the 30-foot-long, robotic, X-37B military ship, which returned to its base at NASAâ€™s Kennedy Space Center inÂ Florida after traveling 1.3 billion miles in space.
In news since 2010, the unmanned little spacecraft or mini-shuttle, spent a record-breaking 908Â days in orbit, into its sixth mission, whose primary objective remained secretive as ever.
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One of the experiments conducted in collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratoryâ€™sÂ Photovoltaic Radiofrequency Antenna Module, â€œsuccessfully harnessed solar rays outside ofÂ Earthâ€™s atmosphere and aimed to transmit power to the ground in the form of radio frequency microwave energy,â€ said a statement by Space Force.
NASA says it’s one of those missions meant to study the effect of long-duration space exposureÂ on seeds to help with space-crop production on future missions.
Lt Col Joseph Fritschen, the program director for the Air Forceâ€™s Rapid Capabilities Office,Â said, â€œThe ability to conduct on-orbit experiments and bring them home safely for in-depth analysis on the ground has proven valuable for the Department of the Air Force and scientific community.â€
Secrecy surrounds X-37B or OTV missions
There are several secret missions launched by the US Space Force (USAF) with limited details,Â some of them designed to counter China’s secret launches of spy satellites. Many believe thatÂ USAF’s X-37B is one such mission.
A miniaturized version of space shuttles, X-37B is a drone that flies at the edge of space andÂ stays in orbit for a year conducting operations or experiments shrouded in mystery.
Every time it lands, USAF claims a new milestone has been successfully met. USAF calls it Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) that was first launched in September 2017 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the current mission is the sixth one since then.
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Little information about each mission has actually been made public. The OTV was deposited in its OTV-5 mission by Falcon 9 at an altitude of about 354 km, inclined 54.5 degrees to the equator.
It was also reported to have carried a payload that was the upgraded and second version of the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader’s (ASETS-II), designed for thermal management system tests for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Besides, the OTV-5 mission payload included a number of small satellites released into orbit, said some reports.
Until the USAF comes out open, speculations on OTV missions remain stretching in thin air. In May 2010, Tom Burghardt in Space Daily speculated that the X-37B could be used as a spy satellite to deliver weapons from space but was denied by the Pentagon.
In January 2012, it was alleged to have been sent to keep an eye on China’s Tiangong-1 space station module. But former US Air Force orbital analyst Brian Weeden refuted this claim, emphasizing that the two spacecraft are in different orbits precluding any practical surveillance flybys.
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In November 2016, another report speculated that the mission was testing a version of the EmDrive electromagnetic microwave thruster but Boeing had clarified that it was no longer pursuing this area of research.
One reason for its elliptic orbit was clarified in 2019 by former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson that when an X-37B was in an elliptic orbit it could, at perigee, use the thin atmosphere to make an orbit change undetectable for a while, thus allowing secretÂ activities during the period.
Even astronomer Jonathan McDowell, editor of Jonathan’s Space Report, once pointed out that the satellites launched from the X-37B were not even reported under the Registration Convention to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
However, the US Space Force is not alone in carrying out secret missions in undetectable orbits as many other nations are vying and gearing up for secretive space missions.