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The U.S. Air Force's unmanned X-37B space plane has marked its 200th day in orbit on a clandestine mission, reported Zero Hedge (US).
Known as Orbital Test Vehicle-5 (OTV-5), the latest mission began September 7, 2017 after it was launched into space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“According to Air Force officials, one payload flying on OTV-5 is the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, or ASETS-11, of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). This cargo is testing experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes for long durations in the space environment. “ -space.com.
The Air Force has not disclosed how long the unpiloted, reusable craft will remain in orbit, however experts have said it's likely to land at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility, where the OTV-4 mission landed on May 7, 2007 - a first for the program, as previous missions all ended with a tarmac touchdown at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.
"The X-37B has been and remains a technology demonstrator," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
"Given that most space technology is dual-use, with the ever-increasing sway toward warfare in space, it's likely that the more militaristic uses of the space plane will be pursued more vigorously, and likely openly given the [presidential] administration's proclivity toward chest thumping," Johnson-Freese told Space.com.
Milestone Missions via Space.com
- Each X-37B mission has set a new flight-duration record for the program.
- OTV-1 began April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.
- The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.
- OTV-3 chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit before finally coming down on Oct. 17, 2014.
- And OTV-4 conducted on-orbit experiments for 718 days during its mission, extending the total number of days spent in space for the OTV program to 2,085 days.
The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office manages the X-37 project. According to Space.com it is used to perform "risk-reduction experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space-vehicle technologies."
The space drone has a payload bay about the size of a pickup-truck bed, which can be outfitted with a robotic arm. X-37B has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit by gallium-arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.
The classified X-37B program "fleet" consists of two known reusable vehicles, both of which were built by Boeing. Looking like a miniature version of NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiter, the military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, with a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m). -Space.com
The orbital path of the OTV-5 mission has puzzled experts, according to Toronto-based satellite analyst Ted Molczan.
"There were indications that OTV-5 went to a significantly higher-inclination orbit than previous OTV missions," he told Space.com. "There was too little information to narrowly constrain a search."
Molczan said he assisted in one fruitless search, but it was of the roughly 44-degree-inclination orbit implied by the OTV-5 launch's "Notice to Airmen," the routine report put out to warn any aircraft pilots who may be near the flight path.
"The final orbit may be more like 60 degrees," he said. "If an object is not found within days or a few weeks of launch, then the trail goes cold and discovery depends on a chance sighting."
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