US Air Force Launches X-37B Plane for Sixth Secretive Mission

May 18, 2020 Updated: May 18, 2020

The U.S. Air Force launched its high-tech reusable drone X-37B, also known as an Orbital Test Vehicle, from Cape Canaveral in Florida on May 17 for its sixth mission in space.

The solar-powered X-37B spacecraft, which is operated by remote control, lifted off following a 24-hour delay due to poor weather.

“Congratulations on the 6th mission of the X-37B reusable spacecraft,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote on Twitter following the launch.

The mystery space plane will deploy a small research satellite dubbed FalconSAT-8, which will spend an extensive period in space conducting a number of experiments, Air Force Secretary and head of the newly established U.S. Space Force, Barbara Barrett, said earlier this month.

“This X-37B mission will host more experiments than any prior mission,” she said.

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This May 5, 2020, photo made available by the United States Space Force shows an Atlas 5 rocket carrying the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Cape Canaveral, Fla. (United Launch Alliance/USSF via AP)

Officials aren’t saying exactly how long the spacecraft will remain in orbit this time or the purpose of the mission. However, Jim Chilton, a senior vice president for X-37B developer Boeing, noted that each mission for the craft has been progressively longer; its previous mission lasted a record two years.

One of the experiments will test the effect of radiation on seeds and other materials, according to AFP. It will also test how solar power captured from space can be transformed into radio-frequency microwave energy that could be transmitted to Earth.

Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter shortly after the launch: “Today, the @SpaceForceDoD successfully launched the next mission of the X-37B space plane from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. American superiority in space is vital to protect our way of life, and @SpaceForceDoD will meet emerging threats with American strength!”

The winged spacecraft resembles NASA’s old shuttles, but is just one-quarter the size at 29 feet (9 meters) long. The one just launched features an extra compartment for experiments, including several for NASA and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, making it the biggest science payload yet for an X-37B.

The launch honors all front-line workers and responders to the COVID-19 pandemic, and those who have been affected by the outbreak, the Air Force said in a statement.

“Our invincible American spirit drives us to motivate, collaborate, and innovate together to overcome adversity,” Barrett said in the statement. “In dedicating this mission to the nation’s health care workers, first responders, and essential personnel, the department celebrates those who are keeping America strong.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.