X-37B spaceplane launched for sixth secretive mission

Pablo Tucker
May 18, 2020

The US Air Force on Sunday successfully launched its high-tech drone X-37B, placing the reusable vehicle into orbit for its sixth secretive mission in space.

The launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, carried two NASA experiments and a small satellite developed by the Air Force, according to the United Launch Alliance, or ULA, which provided the Atlas V rocket.

The one just launched features an extra compartment for experiments, including several for NASA. The X-37B OTV is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.

The Cape Canaveral Air Force Station has an exceptionally fast turnaround for its next launch.


The specifics of what the X-37B does in space, however, are classified.

This would be the 139th mission for ULA.

"America Strong" is the tagline for this mission, with Space Force and ULA emblazoning it on the side of the Atlas V rocket along with the message: "In memory of COVID-19 victims and tribute to all first responders and front-line workers". "We have to stop the live broadcast early so we don't provide adversaries too much data about the flight".

The Atlas 5 flew with a five-meter payload fairing, a single-engine upper stage and no solid rocket motors strapped to the core stage.


It will also deploy a FalconSAT-8 satellite, sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory, to conduct tests on orbit. At about 11,000 pounds and almost 29-foot long, the X-37B is large enough that it requires a big rocket like the Atlas 5 to get to orbit but not heavy enough to need extra solid boosters.

One of them will be to test the capability of converting solar power into radio-frequency microwave radiation that can be beamed to Earth.

The X-37B runs various missions for the USA, though its specific aims are actually classified. But it could be a while before the X-37 descends from orbit to end its mission with a runway landing.


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