The U.S. Space Force’s spaceplane touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida after spending nearly three years orbiting around Earth on a secretive mission.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6) landed on November 12 at 5:22 a.m. ET, setting a new record of 908 days in orbit. The Boeing-built reusable vehicle’s previous record had been 780 consecutive days in orbit.
The spaceplane took off in May 2020, launching atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. This marked the sixth flight of the mysterious spaceplane above Earth, carrying payloads for the U.S. military, as well as NASA.
The uncrewed spaceplane also carried a service module to increase its payload capacity to orbit. The service module didn’t return to Earth, however, as it was discarded and disposed of prior to reentry.
As the name suggests, the spaceplane is an airplane-spacecraft hybrid that’s able to launch into orbit like a spacecraft before landing horizontally back on Earth like an airplane. The Space Force didn’t specify the exact capabilities of its spaceplane, but noted that it would be able to carry experiments to orbit and bring them back to Earth for analysis.
“This mission highlights the Space Force’s focus on collaboration in space exploration and expanding low-cost access to space for our partners, within and outside of the Department of the Air Force (DAF),” General Chance Saltzman, chief of Space Operations, said in a statement.
The mission payload included a solar energy experiment designed by the Naval Research Lab that’s meant to capture sunlight and convert it into electrical energy, in addition to the U.S. Air Force Academy’s FalconSat-8. NASA also loaded the spaceplane with its own experiments, including the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS-2), which will study the effects of space exposure on different materials.
Aside from this, it’s not entirely clear what the spaceplane was doing up there for the past 908 days. The U.S. Space Force has shared little information about its reusable vehicle and it was unclear as to when the vehicle was going to land.
Similarly, China recently launched its own spaceplane on August 4, and the reusable spacecraft experiment is still aloft till today with no word on when it’s going to land.