The top-secret X-37B space plane has beaten its previous flight record by staying in orbit for 908 days. Operated by the United States Space Force (USSF), it is officially classified and few details about its purpose or missions are released, but officials say that the latest flight carried a host of scientific experiments.
The X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) started off under NASA, but was acquired by the US military, which created the X-37B variant. That model first flew in orbit in 2010 and the two vehicles constructed so far have carried out increasingly long flights, including a 674-day mission that ended in 2014. Its latest 908-day mission sets a new record for the craft.
The landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on 12 November marked the end of the mission known as OTV-6, which started in May 2020. Officials say that it carried out a range of scientific experiments, including a test designed by the US Naval Research Laboratory, in which energy was collected by solar panels and beamed back to Earth as microwaves. It also released a satellite designed by cadets at the United States Air Force Academy that featured an electromagnetic propulsion system. Other experiments were provided by NASA, including some designed to test the effects of space exposure on various materials and seeds.
There is speculation that X-37B has a military as well as scientific purpose, just as the space shuttle before it did. The then-head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, said in an interview earlier this year that the craft could be “a carrier of some kind of reconnaissance apparatus, and a carrier of weapons of mass destruction”.