Mysterious X-37B space plane gears up for its sixth mission

The United States Air Force has an orbital vehicle called the X-37B that has spent significant time in orbit around the Earth. We still have no clear indication of the real purpose of the spacecraft, but we do know that the Air Force is gearing up for space mission OTV-6, and that mission could last as long as two years. The official purpose for the X-37B is to test new technology.

Speculation suggests that the X-37B, which is built by Boeing, could be some sort of space-based weapon. It reportedly has commonalities with the latest Chinese and Russian space weapons. The OTV-6 mission is scheduled to launch on May 16, 2020.

The space plane will be pushed into orbit using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The mission will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. While little is known about the X-37B space plane, it looks like a miniature version of the retired space shuttle. Much like the retired space shuttle, the X-37B can return to Earth on its own and land like an airplane to be reused later.

The X-37B is capable of remaining in orbit for up to two years, and the USAF has a pair of the spacecraft. While one is in orbit, the other is being refitted for its next mission. The first time one of the spacecraft went into orbit was in 2010, and it remained there for 224 days. The next mission came in March 2011 and lasted 468 days.

Mission 3 launched in December 2012 and remained in orbit for 674 days. 2015 saw the fourth mission launch, remaining in orbit for 717 days. The mission in September 2017 saw the X-37B stay in orbit for 779 days. While in orbit, the spacecraft deploys solar panels to power its systems and has liquid fuel for maneuvering thrusters. As for the purpose of its missions, the Air Force did say that OTV-5 carried the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader into orbit for testing.