On the tarmac, the X-37B, as it is called, looks tiny, standing not much taller than a person. Its wingspan measures less than 15 feet, and it weighs in at just 11,000 pounds.
But over the course of six flights, it has proved to be a rugged little robotic spacecraft, spending a total of nearly six years, probing the hard environment of the high frontier.
On Sept 7, 2017, after a successful morning launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the X-37B headed yet again to the vital real estate known as low Earth orbit, home to the International Space Station and all sorts of military and commercial satellites.
The mission is slated to last 270 days, but the Air Force warned in a statement that “the actual duration depends on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance and conditions at the landing facility.”
The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.
On this flight, the mission is to carry small satellites, demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies.
The service also said it would test experimental electronics in a weightless environment.
The mission is also significant because it marked the first time SpaceX has been chosen to launch for the Air Force - a coup for the California firm started in 2002 by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
The X-37B was launched on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX also successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a landing pad on the Cape, a bit of rocket artistry that Musk and others have said could help dramatically lower the cost of space travel. Background
- For nearly a decade, the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, had a monopoly on Pentagon launches.
- SpaceX filed suit against the Air Force for the right to compete.
- In 2015, the parties settled and SpaceX was ultimately allowed to compete against ULA, opening up a potentially lucrative source of revenue.
- Since then, SpaceX has won two of three contested launch contracts.
- X37B marks SpaceX's first military mission after years of launching payloads for NASA and commercial satellites.
- All four of the X-37B's previous launches were aboard ULA's Atlas V rocket.
- The last X-37B flight lasted almost two years, setting a new endurance record for the drone. Over the course of five missions, it has spent almost six years in space.
- The reusable, solar-powered “orbital space vehicle” was developed by Boeing Co. BA, +0.72%.