X-37B spacecraft launching tomorrow with NASA experiment

U.S. Air Force X-37B spacecraft is set to launch tomorrow at 10:45 a.m. EDT from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, atop the Atlas V 501 launch vehicle. Riding alongside the unmanned space shuttle will be 10 “CubeSats” — miniature satellites for space research — including the LightSail, a project crowdfunded through Kickstarter for The Planetary Society (and spearheaded by Bill Nye, the “Science Guy”). Primarily, the experiment launched will study the continued use of solar sail technology in orbit, but it will also investigate how the space environment affects certain materials, and research how existing conditions in space affects the operation of spacecraft.

NASA’s experiment: Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS)

The main objective of NASA’s experiment aboard the X-37B spacecraft is to expose specific materials to space, and then to return the samples to Earth for analysis. In doing so, scientists and researchers are hoping to detect more keenly how well these materials can hold up and operate in varying outer space environments. This applies, most importantly, to the engineering of spacecraft designers, who can feed the data gained from this experiment into decisions regarding applications such as building antennas, thermal protection and manufacturing hardware.

A big part of the ongoing research is to build on a more wholesome, environmentally friendly strategy of constructing spacecraft. NASA’s METIS experiment is choosing to use some of the same materials of the 4,000 samples that were placed on the International Space Station for the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), an experiment that ran from 2001 to 2013.

The search: environmentally friendly ways for spacecraft to orbit in space

Bill Nye’s LightSail will have its solar sails will hunt for ways to utilize photons from the sun to propel the movement of spacecraft. If this innovation is entirely successful, scientists will have found a critical way to dispel chemical fuels and enable spacecraft to move through orbit faster and cheaper.

In 2018, additional CubeSats with solar sails are set to launch: NASA’s Lunar Flashlight and Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) Scout. The first spacecraft will be launched into lunar orbit, and will hunt for water ice in the moon’s craters (using its sail as a mirrored “flashlight”). The latter will focus on demonstrating cheap and efficient methods to study asteroids.

To see more images of the spacecraft, click here!