US military officials open up about sixth X-37B mission

Air Force Secretary, Barbara M Barrett, and US Space Force (USSF) Gen John W Raymond opened up about the sixth mission of Boeing’s X-37B reusable space plane – a platform that has been shrouded in secrecy since its first launch.

The two spoke about the secretive platform during a webinar, hosted by the US Space Foundation on May 6, where they also provided an update on the progress of the USSF.

Boeing’s X-37B is an unmanned, reusable space plane that is launched into orbit by a rocket and following its mission, it glides back to Earth and lands like a conventional aircraft – much like the space shuttle did. As of May 2020, the platform has completed five missions, spending a total of 2,865 days in orbit.

X-37B [Boeing] #1

The USAF’s Rapid Capability Office has teamed up with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the USSF to conduct a new mission which will maximise the platform’s unique abilities. In explaining this, Barrett said: “This important mission will host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments.”

The spacecraft was due to be launched back into orbit for the sixth time to conduct this mission on May 16, but bad weather at Cape Canaveral, Florida, delayed the launch until 0914hrs (local time, EDT) on May 17. It was launched into space by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. “The Space Force dedicates this flight to the nation’s first responders and frontline professionals who keep America strong”, the Secretary added.

Barrett detailed three of the experiments that will take place during the mission. The first will test the reaction of “significant materials to the conditions in space”, a second will study the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds and the third – which has been designed by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) – will transform solar power into radio-frequency microwave energy, then study its transmission to Earth. The space plane will also supposedly deploy a USAF Academy-developed small satellite, known as FalconSat-8, which itself carries five experimental payloads.

X-37B [US DoD] #1
US Department of Defense

When talking about the rise of the US’s newest military branch – Space Force – Raymond said that it is currently an exciting but critical time for space, with many advances being made in the domain. He emphasised the need for the service as a platform to combat potential adversaries that see space as a warfighting domain, adding that the strategic environment of space has changed.

Gen Raymond said: “We’ve seen Russia [manoeuvre] a satellite with characteristics of a weapon system in proximity to a US satellite… And just in the past few weeks, Iran attempted to launch an operational satellite in making a claim for becoming a space power… It is important for us to deter aggressive action against American assets… But if deterrence fails, we need to be prepared to defend and, if necessary, shoot back.”