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For Its Next Mission, the Secretive X-37B Will Shoot Power from Space

Popular Mechanics logo Popular Mechanics 5/16/2020 Caroline Delbert
a fighter jet sitting on top of a runway: For its next mission, the Air Force's secretive X-37B spaceplane will shoot power from space. Here's how to watch the launch live. © U.S. Air Force For its next mission, the Air Force's secretive X-37B spaceplane will shoot power from space. Here's how to watch the launch live.

Update May 16 10:25 a.m. EDT:

Due to adverse weather conditions, today's launch has been scrubbed. ULA will try again tomorrow at 9:14 a.m. EDT.

Update May 16 8:30 a.m. EDT:

Due to unfavorable weather conditions, ULA is now targeting the second 10-minute window of opportunity, which starts at 10:13 a.m. EDT. The livestream will begin at 10:03 a.m. EDT.

The original post is below:

On Saturday, May 16, the U.S. Space Force will launch the Air Force's secretive X-37B spaceplane on its sixth and potentially longest flight. Among the tech on board is an experimental system that turns collected solar energy into microwave beams that could power other objects in space or on Earth.

Saturday’s flight will be officially known as Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6) and U.S. Space Force-7 (USSF-7). The X-37B will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, riding atop a liquid-fueled Atlas V rocket, and might not return until mid-2022 or later. The United Launch Alliance is targeting an 8:24 a.m. EST liftoff. You can watch the livestream right here:

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The X-37B is an unmanned spaceplane, designed to work in or out of the atmosphere with slightly different mechanics at play in each. Where a classic amphibious vehicle is designed to manage on land or in water, the X-37B is designed to thrive in both air and space, using the physics of the atmosphere for self defense and eluding enemies. The reusable craft's ability to orbit in either environment makes it both special and challenging in the existing landscape of airplanes and spacecraft.

The X-37B last launched in 2017 for OTV-5 and stayed in space for a record-setting 780 days, returning home last October from a mission that saw it successfully host “Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others” and provide a “ride for small satellites,” per an Air Force press release.

The spacecraft has now spent a lifetime total of 2,856 days in orbit over the span of five missions. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, it’s the only reusable craft in use anywhere on Earth today—with a lot of pressure from both civilians interested in spaceflight and U.S. military concerns like the fledgling Space Force.

a fighter jet sitting on top of a tarmac at an airport: X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1 © U.S. DoD - Getty Images X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1

So what is this new microwave beam system? Nobody knows for sure. The X-37B program has prided itself on taking new technologies into space for testing, and since the spaceplane lands safely and is reused, it’s an ideal lab environment.

“[T]his X-37B mission will host more experiments than any prior missions,” the Space Force said in a statement. That’s because the branch is also trying out a new “service module” that literally attaches to the vehicle. “The service module is an attachment to the aft of the vehicle that allows additional experimental payload capability to be carried to orbit,” the statement continues.

The microwave system is part of the new array of experiments. Energy is collected in space by photovoltaic (solar) cells, then it’s beamed down to Earth with special microwave lasers. The idea of space-based solar power (SBSP) has been on NASA’s radar since the 1970s, when the agency commissioned the first of several large-scale studies of how it might work. At the time, experts concluded a solar energy satellite “would require approximately 600 workers in space” and “could be built in 6 months.”

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Fortunately, progressive iterations of the idea don’t require 50 times more people than have ever been in space at the same time. The Power Transmitted Over Laser (PTROL) project uses microwaves instead of radio waves in order to greatly reduce the size and power requirements of its collecting and transmitting hardware.

The U.S. Naval Research Lab suggests in a statement that the “wireless” solar from space could power people on the ground as well as unmanned electric aircraft in flight. As if the idea of laser power from space weren’t sci-fi enough.

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