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US spaceplane is successfully launched into orbit

Artist's impression of X-37B spaceplaneArtist's impression of X-37B spaceplaneThe US Space Force has successfully launched a X-37B military spaceplane into orbit. Carried aboard an Atlas V rocket, it lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 16th May 2020. The spaceplane, a reusable robotic vehicle which has undertaken five previous missions, was uncrewed. The length of the current mission is unknown. The last one was completed in October 2019 after 780 days in orbit. The first mission was launched in April 2010 and returned after around eight months.

Atlas V rocket, carrying an X-37B in May 2015Atlas V rocket, carrying an X-37B in May 2015

X-37B seen from front, top and sideX-37B seen from front, top and sideFor its sixth mission, the X-37B, manufactured by Boeing, is fitted with a service module, enabling it to carry out two scientific experiments. In one, the effects of radiation on plant seeds are studied; the other aims to convert solar energy into radio waves, which can then be transmitted to the ground. The plane will also release from the cargo bay inside its fuselage the FalconSat-8, a small test satellite—about the size of a dishwasher. This will conduct its own experiments. The plane uses solar panels for power in orbit.

X-37B inside the Atlas V nose cone X-37B inside the Atlas V nose cone
The Boeing X-37B, also known as an Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), is one of two identical vehicles. Measuring 8.9 metres (29 feet) long with a wingspan of 4.55 metres (nearly 15 feet), it looks like a smaller version of the Space Shuttle, which was retired by the US space programme in 2011. Like the Shuttle, at the end of its mission it glides back to Earth and lands on a runway. But whereas the Shuttle was piloted by a crew, the X-37B is fully autonomous: it pilots itself.

Forming part of the US military’s “America Strong” campaign, the launch, made during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, was dedicated to coronavirus front-line workers, health care professionals and victims of the Covid-19 disease.

Picture acknowledgements: (from top) NASA; James McCloskey; Giuseppe De Chiara 1968; US Space Force

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