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The Air Force set a new record when its secret space plane flew for more than two years straight

The U.S. Air Force has broken its own record after one of its specialized planes stayed in low Earth orbit for nearly two years. But this plane and the project it belongs to are still shrouded in mystery.

According to an Air Force press release revealing some information about the project, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is "an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force." The mission has the dual objectives of developing "reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth."

But what the Air Force has been a lot less forthcoming about is why this unmanned plane has been flying for so long continuously and what it's been doing during its flight. The Washington Post noted that the X-37B stuck to a low Earth orbit, which is the same orbit that holds military satellites and the International Space Station.

The "plane" looks like a mini space shuttle. It's 29 feet long and 9 feet high, with a wingspan just shy of 15 feet. It was taken into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2017. According to Air & Space magazine, the X-37B moves by using "Hall thrusters" which use "an electric field to accelerate xenon propellant, producing a small but steady thrust that’s useful for many types of spacecraft, including military communications satellites already in orbit." According to the Air Force, the aircraft is powered by "Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries."

Before this attempt, previous X-37B flights had lasted for 224 days, 469 days, and 674 days.  This latest flight lasted for 719 days. For perspective, the longest commercial flight takes 19 hours to travel from New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport to Singapore.

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