The US Air Force's not-so-secret spaceplane is getting a new ride next week, when the fifth X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-5) lifts off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Under command of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the unmanned orbiter will be placed in an orbit with a higher inclination to the equator than previous missions to expand its operational envelope.

The September 7 launch is a first for the X-37B project. Previous missions were all launched by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster. However, SpaceX has recently moved from civilian launches to include military contracts in its portfolio, and the Falcon 9 was tapped for OTV-5.

The shuttle-like X-37B is notorious for its combination of openness and secrecy. While its launches and landings are publicized by the Air Force, exactly how long each mission will last and the primary objective of each mission is kept a secret. What is known is that the X-37B is a long-duration technology demonstrator capable of rapid deployment.

In flight, the spaceplane carries a number of experimental payloads. This flight includes small satellite deployments, the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader payload for long-term space testing of experimental electronics, and oscillating heat pipe technologies. What other experiments are onboard, the Air Force isn't saying.

The previous mission, OTV-4, set a record for endurance by a returnable space vehicle on May 7, 2017, when it landed at the Kennedy Space Center after 718 days in orbit.

"The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program," says Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. "It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community."

Source:
US Air Force