Drone technology is getting more and more like science fiction every day, but this may be the most sci-fi drone of all. After breaking its own record, the Air Force’s unmanned X-37B spaceplane just came back down to earth after 780 days in orbit.
On Sunday morning at 3:51 a.m. ET, the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida, successfully completing all mission objectives throughout some two years and 50 days' worth of on-orbit experiments. The plane was initially launched on Sept. 7, 2017, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the help of a Space X Falcon 9 booster.
“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett in a statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”
Previously, the 11,000-pound, 29-foot-long Boeing-built X-37B landed Mission 4 at the same facility after 718 days in orbit, setting its first record despite only being designed for an on-orbit duration of 270 days. So far, the Air Force’s premier reusable and unmanned spacecraft has been in orbit for 2,865 days, the entirety of the test vehicle program.
The Air Force notes that the X-37B is the world's only reusable space vehicle. Having such extended time in orbit allows NASA to thoroughly test Air Force Research Laboratory experiments (among others) in a long-duration space environment, perform risk reduction, and provide transport to small satellites and “concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies,” according to the Air Force’s statement.
Alas, the program is classified, so we’re not exactly sure what the somewhat mysterious plane is up to, but NASA assures us it’s all in the nation’s best interests, with primary goals of demonstrating reusable spacecraft tech and conducting experiments in space that can be continued here on Earth.
“This spacecraft is a key component of the space community. This milestone demonstrates our commitment to conducting experiments for America’s future space exploration,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Keen, X-37B program manager. “Congratulations to the X-37B team for a job well done.”
The Air Force is preparing to launch a sixth X-37B mission in 2020.