Air Force’s Secret Space Plane Used Solar In Orbit

Its purpose is shrouded in mystery but we do know one thing about the U.S. Air Force‘s robotic X-37B space plane, which flew back to Earth recently after a 15-month stint in orbit: It runs on solar.

During its time in orbit the X-37B deployed solar panels to power itself. The gallium arsenide solar cells charged lithium-ion batteries for the craft’s internal systems.

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image via U.S. Air Force

What those internal systems are and what payload the 29-foot-long craft was carrying remains top secret.

In fitting with its clandestine status the plane touched down on Earth in the eery dawn light  in California’s Vandenburg Air Force Base recently.

The moment was captured on video by officials at the Air Force base. The first part of the landing was filmed with a heat sensitive infrared video so that the nose of the craft can be seen glowing hot, presumably as a result of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

The vessel, which is unmanned and looks like a smaller version of a conventional space shuttle, launched into space March last year.  It was carried into orbit via an Atlas 5 booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The use of solar panels for spacecraft long predates their adoptions as a renewable energy source on earth. Space satellites have used the sun’s rays to power themselves for a number of years.

The solar panels used to power satellites are actually quite different from those powering homes and businesses here on Earth. The harsh reality of generating power in outer space requires solar panels to be both highly efficient, and capable of tolerating extreme temperatures.

Solar panels have also been used to power deep space missions to the moon and other planets within our solar system, including Mars.

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for CNN.com and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.

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