Mysterious X-37B Military Space Plane Nears 1 Year in Orbit
(pub de Boeing)
The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B miniature space plane has winged past 340 days in orbit performing secretive duties during the program’s fifth flight.
The robotic craft’s latest mission, known as Orbital Test Vehicle-5 (OTV-5), kicked off on Sept. 7, 2017, with a launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
As usual, Air Force officials have revealed few details about OTV-5. But we do know that one payload flying aboard the X-37B this time around is the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, or ASETS-11. Developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, this cargo is testing experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes for long durations in the space environment.
Ted Molczan, a Toronto-based satellite analyst, told Inside Outer Space that OTV-5’s initial orbit was about 220 miles (355 kilometers) high, inclined 54.5 degrees to the equator. “Its ground track nearly repeated every two days, after 31 revolutions,” he said.
On April 19, the space drone lowered its orbit by 24 miles (39 km), which caused its ground track to exactly repeat every five days, after 78 revolutions, Molczan said — a first for an OTV mission.
“Repeating ground tracks are very common,” Molczan added, “especially for spacecraft that observe the Earth. That said, I do not know why OTV has repeating ground tracks.”
Space Force ties?
Does the X-37B program fit into the Trump administration’s call for a Space Force?
“Ironically, the X-37B is exactly the type of program — toward giving the U.S. flexibility of operations in space — that seems to be prompting the current push for a Space Force, yet are already underway,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.