SpaceX, the aerospace company formed by CEO Elon Musk, successfully launched the U.S. Air Force’s Orbital Test Vehicle 5 (OTV-5) into space this week from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Using the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, which successfully returned to Earth, landing at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the launch comes a few months after Congress authorized the creation of the “Space Corps,” a division inside the Air Force to protect the interests of the U.S.
The OTV-5 is an experimental program for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The goals of the OTV-5 include demonstrating reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments that can be returned to and examined on Earth.
The X-37 OTV-5 vehicle is designed for vertical launch to low Earth-orbit altitudes where it can perform long-duration space technology experimentation and testing. The aircraft autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway. It is the first vehicle since NASA’s Shuttle Orbiter with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis. While the Space Shuttle could stay in orbit for about 270 days, the X-37B can stay in space for much longer.
The Air Force says the technologies being tested on the spacecraft include advanced guidance, navigation, and control; thermal protection systems avionics; high temperature structures and seals; conformal, reusable insulations; lightweight electromechanical flight systems; advanced propulsion systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry, and landing.
Previously, the Air Force successfully flew three X-37B missions—OTV-1 through OTV-3—beginning in 2010. The latest test, OTV-3, was launched on Oct. 17, 2014, and the spacecraft spent 674 days in orbit. In all OTV missions, a total of 1,367 days have been spent in orbit.