X-37B Space Plane Returns as USAF Collects Data for Possible Replacement

The Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 lands at NASA 's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility, Fla., May 7, 2017. USAF photo.

Editor’s note: This story was updated Oct. 27 at 10 p.m. EDT.

The Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida on Oct. 27, after spending a record-breaking 780 days on orbit.

The Orbital Test Vehicle, a reusable and unmanned spacecraft, was completing its fifth mission.

“Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in an Oct. 27 press release.

Mission four lasted 718 days in space, though the spacecraft was designed to last only 270 days aloft. A sixth mission will launch in 2020.

The X-37B performed experiments to lower the risk for potentially very expensive space technologies, helping the Air Force prepare for possibly costly next steps or how it should operate in space in the future, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office Director Randall Walden said Oct. 24.

While he would not provide details of those experiments, Air Force officials have said they relate to spacecraft materials, power generation techniques, and sensors.

In a press release after the landing, Walden said the space plane completed all its mission objectives, successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, and provided a ride for small satellites.

The X-37 also is informing whether the Air Force will need a new vehicle to replace it, Walden said.

“The data are still out” on whether USAF needs more X-37s to replace its two aircraft as they age, or whether the service is planning a follow-on program, he said.

The two vehicles in hand are “workhorses” that are faring well with their experimentation and prototyping missions, he said. He hinted that the X-37 is also helping answer the question of how the US could venture into reusable space assets, as it is exploring in the National Security Space Launch program for reusable rockets that can take military and civilian space assets to orbit.

In July, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson revealed more details about the OTV, saying it “can do an orbit that looks like an egg and, when it’s close to the Earth, it’s close enough to the atmosphere to turn where it is.” Military.com first reported on her remarks.

“Our adversaries don’t know—and that happens on the far side of the Earth from our adversaries—where it’s going to come up next. And we know that that drives them nuts. And I’m really glad about that,” Wilson said.