At 9:14am Eastern (13:14 UTC) on Sunday, May 17th, the US Air Force’s reusable Orbital Test Vehicle, more commonly known as the X-37B space plane, was launched into orbit on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from SLC 41 at Cape Canaveral, marking the start of the sixth flight since 2010.
The U.S. military and ULA dedicated the launch to coronavirus first responders, front-line workers, and victims of the disease.
Amateur satellite trackers have calculated that the orbit appears to be about 200 miles (~350 km) in altitude at an inclination of about 44 degrees.
As you can imagine, there’s not too much information available about the OTV-6 mission. But, it is known that besides the classified military objectives, the space plane was upgraded to support additional scientific experiments, and FalconSAT-8, a 136 kg technology demonstration satellite roughly the size of a washing machine.
Two of the experiments are being flown for NASA. One is studying the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds, while the other is a sample plate evaluating how various materials react to the conditions of space.
One of the military experiments that belongs to the Naval Research Laboratory will be converting solar power into microwave energy that will be transmitted to Earth.
The X-37B is a reusable space vehicle designed to deploy small satellites, host experiments and “pursue other classified objectives”. It generates electricity using solar panels and can glide to land on a runway at the end of a mission autonomously. The Air Force owns two of the vehicles, both of which were built by Boeing.
The previous five OTV missions add up to just under 8 years in orbit, with the last mission having a duration of 780 days.