Skip to content
Subscriber Only

The Secret Air Force Space Drone Heads Back Into Orbit

This time, NASA gets some space in the craft to test materials against temperature extremes, debris, and atomic oxygen
Video player cover image

What we know about the Air Force's space drone.

A classified Air Force space drone is returning to orbit again, and this time NASA will use the flight to see how 100 or so “materials of interest” hold up in the murderous environment of space.

Space stresses materials with temperature extremes, debris, micrometeoroids, direct sunlight, and atomic oxygen and can erode many of the paints, polymers, and composites that NASA and private space companies use as protective coatings on their craft. Such research becomes only more critical as the agency contemplates longer, deep-space explorations, such as a mission to Mars in the 2030s. NASA now has some space in the 29-foot-long Air Force drone to carry out the testing—which involves samples about the size of a quarter and extends research that began in 2001—for possible use in future spacecraft.