Mysterious X-37B Spacecraft Will Launch Sixth Mission Later This Month to Conduct Secretive 'On-Orbit Experiments'

The Air Force's mysterious X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is scheduled to launch its sixth mission later this month from Cape Canaveral, Florida. And unlike previous journeys into orbit, we have been told at least some of the reasons why.

The unmanned shuttle's payloads have been notoriously secretive for years—fueling rampant speculation among those without high security clearance—but are generally believed to focus on technology experiments on satellites or sensors.

Now, officials behind the next launch have provided an unprecedented glimpse behind the project, confirming the mission will include "on-orbit" experiments.

Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett said this week during a webinar hosted by The Space Foundation this week the launch will take place May 16 and is set to "host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments."

Appearing beside General John W. Raymond, she said: "One is a sample plate evaluating the reaction of select significant materials to conditions in space.

"The second studies the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds. A third, designed by the Naval Research Laboratory, transforms solar power into radio frequency microwave energy, then studies transmitting that energy to Earth."

U.S. Air Force officials this week said it is the ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth that makes the X-37B program so unique.

And while still vague, they noted that its next mission will help to "effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain."

"This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program," said Randy Walden, Program Executive Officer for the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

"This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The incorporation... on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions."

The X-37B spacecraft is considered an Air Force asset however the U.S. Space Force is now responsible for its launch, on-orbit operations, and eventual landing.

It has now been confirmed the next mission will deploy a small FalconSat-8 satellite to conduct several experiments on orbit. Officials described this as being an "educational platform that will carry five experimental payloads for USAFA (United States Air Force Academy) to operate."

The NASA experiments are designed to study the results of radiation and other space effects on a materials sample plate and seeds that are used to grow food.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Keen, the X-37B program manager, said: "We are excited to return the X-37B to space and conduct numerous on-orbit experiments."

According to the U.S. Space Force, the X-37B program completed its fifth mission in October 2019. It landed after 780 days on-orbit. In total, the spacecraft has spent 2,865 days—or seven years and 10 months—on-orbit during its missions.

Encapsulated X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for United States Space Force-7 mission Boeing/Air Force