The US Air Force's X-37B space plane is heading back to Low Earth Orbit after a record-breaking fifth mission last year. It’s scheduled to launch on May 16th from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and while it still belongs to the Air Force, the newly formed US Space Force will oversee its upcoming launch, operations and landing.
The plane started carrying out missions in 2010, serving as the platform for what are mostly classified experimental payloads. It wasn’t even clear what mission objectives it completed when it came back in late 2019 after spending 780 days in orbit, 240 days longer than expected.
While we were only previously given vague hints of what the plane was carrying, the Space Force is more forthright this time around. In its announcement, the military division has revealed that the X-37B’s sixth mission will deploy a small satellite called FalconSat-8 that was developed by the US Air Force Academy.
As Gizmodo notes, the military might be more willing to share information this time around, because the mission objectives aren’t as sensitive: FalconSat-8 is an educational platform that will come with five experimental payloads. The flight will also carry two NASA experiments to study the effects of radiation on seeds and materials used to grow food in space.
Randy Walden, the Director and Program Executive Officer for the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, called the sixth mission a “big step” for the X-37B program. It’s the first time the plane is using a service module to host experiments, and that will allow it to host more experimental payloads going forward.