Science

Mysterious US Space Force autonomous spacecraft completes mission, setting new record

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A U.S. Space Force Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6) VTOL unmanned spacecraft successfully desorbed and landed at the landing site from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on November 12, 2022. It remained in orbit for more than 900 days, during which time scientists were able to conduct various experiments in space conditions.

OTV-6 launched on May 17, 2020 from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle. After spending 908 days, 21 hours and 8 minutes in Earth orbit, it broke the record set by the previous OTV-5 mission, which spent 780 days in space. X-37B has a length of 8.90 meters with a wingspan of 4.5 meters; it is designed to operate in an orbit with an altitude of 230 to 1064 kilometers. This OTV-6 mission is the first to carry a service module, allowing for more experiments to be carried out during the mission.

Note that the service module, attached to the rear of the craft, was separated from the shuttle prior to landing, “necessary due to the aerodynamic forces experienced by the X-37B craft during re-entry.” This is stated in the statement Force. It is planned to eliminate this module in the coming weeks. “The deliberate approach in which we conduct operations in orbit, including the disposal of the service module, demonstrates the commitment of the United States to safe and responsible space practices, especially as the problem of increasing orbital debris threatens to affect global space operations,” said the Secretary of the Air Force. USA Frank Kendall.

New module dedicated to scientific experiments

As with the five previous OTV missions, the precise targets of this unmanned autonomous spacecraft, as well as the duration of the mission, were classified as “secret defense”; however, it carried a number of payloads designed to test and validate several new technologies.

In fact, thanks to the new module, the mission has performed many more experiments than previous flights, including two NASA experiments. The METIS-2 (Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space) experiment was aimed at studying the behavior of various thermal control coatings and electronic materials in space conditions. NASA scientists will use the data collected during those roughly 900 days in orbit and compare the observed effects with ground-based simulations, which will improve models of the space environment.

The second experiment of the US space agency was aimed at studying the effect of a long stay in space on seeds. Scientists are particularly interested in the impact of space radiation on seed tolerance in order to be able to better plan for future manned space flights and the creation of permanently inhabited bases in space, which will require the cultivation of various plants to meet the need for oxygen. and the nutrient requirements of crew members.

The ship was the third experiment carried out by the Naval Research Laboratory: the latter developed a photovoltaic RF antenna module that captures the sun’s rays outside the earth’s atmosphere and then transmits this energy to Earth in the form of high-frequency microwaves.

Mini-satellite as an experimental platform

A few days into the mission, OTV-6 also deployed FalconSat-8, a small 136 kg satellite developed by the US Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory. The ship carries five experimental payloads, including a new electromagnetic propulsion system. The satellite is currently still in orbit, providing an ideal experimental platform for the Academy’s Space Operations Cadets Squadron.

FalconSat-8 includes a total of five technologies, starting with the magnetoplasmodynamic thruster (or Lorentz force booster), which uses the Lorentz force to accelerate the plasma and thus create jet thrust. It is also equipped with an antenna made of metamaterials, with low power consumption and high performance; this antenna should eventually provide data transmission between space and airspace.

Scientists will also study the response of carbon nanotubes to space conditions using the CANOE (CArbon NanOtubes Experiment) experiment, and then evaluate the performance of the SkyPad, a device consisting of cameras and ready-to-use GPUs integrated into a low-level system. consumable assembly. Finally, the satellite includes a commercial reaction wheel specially modified into a flywheel, an attitude control and energy storage (ACES) device.

“The ability to conduct experiments in orbit and return them safely home for in-depth analysis on the ground has proved invaluable to the Air Force Department and the scientific community,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Frichen, director of X-Program 37B.

To date, this reusable space plane has traveled a total of almost two billion kilometers and spent 3,774 days in space. Recall that in September 2020, China commissioned a similar spacecraft, which recently returned to space (early August) for a second mission, which continues today. Beijing, however, remains as mysterious as the US space force about its mission goals.

US Space Force.

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