X-37B Space Plane: What's the Mission? Sorry, That's Classified.
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By Peter Suciu, The National Interest
On Sunday the United States Space Force, the sixth and newest branch of the U.S. military, proved its role once again in a successful launch of the sixth X-37B unmanned spacecraft into orbit as part of a classified mission. The actual launch, which was handled by America's most experienced launch provider, United Launch Alliance (ULA), took place at 9:14am EDT on May 17 from LC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
The X-37B is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft and is the first since the Space Shuttle to have the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis. It has a lifting body-style and landing profile that is similar to the Space Shuttle but is just one quarter its size. Defense Blog noted that it combines the best of aircraft and spacecraft into an affordable system that is easy to operate and maintain.
The cargo included a variety of experiments including some from NASA and some from the Space Force.
One of the most notable experiments is being conducted by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory's PRAM (Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module), which will be used to test the microwave transmission of solar energy captured from space – a concept that was first described by Peter Glasser in 1968. Glasser was subsequently awarded a patent in 1973 for the technology, which has the potential to be a major game-changer for space exploration but also for renewable energy.
"To our knowledge, this experiment is the first test in orbit of hardware designed specifically for solar power satellites, which could play a revolutionary role in our energy future," said Paul Jaffe, PRAM principal investigator.
PRAM is a 12-inch square tile module that can be used to test the ability to harvest power from its solar panel and transform the energy to a radio frequency microwave.
"PRAM converts sunlight for microwave power transmission," said Chris Depuma, PRAM program manager. "We could've also converted for optical power transmission. Converting to optical might make more sense for lunar applications because there's no atmosphere on the Moon. The disadvantage of optical is you could lose a lot of energy through clouds and atmosphere."
There could be a multitude of military applications for the technology, including drones that could operate on beamed solar power and in theory at least fly indefinitely; while beamed solar power could also provide electricity to remote research of military outposts. Instead of flying diesel fuel to power a remote base, beamed solar power could provide the energy.
Space Force officials also revealed that the X-37B carried a small FalconSat-8 satellite into orbit, as well as two NASA payloads that were designed to study the effects of radiation on different materials as well as seeds to grow food in space.
The FalconSAT-8 will carry five experimental payloads, and members of the Cadet Space Operations Squadron will operate FalconSAT-8.
"FalconSAT-8 is an educational platform for cadets," said Lt. Col. Dan Showalter, assistant astronautics professor at the United States Air Force Academy. "We perform technology demonstrations for the Air Force."
The Academy's space program includes aerospace experts, mechanics and engineers. The FalconSAT program serves as an academic platform for an array of aerospace industry and DOD experiments; while cadets design spacecraft and integrate payloads in the Space Systems Research Center with faculty support.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.