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While the Boeing-built X37B drone's nature remains mysterious, we at least know that it's a test-bed for futuristic space tech. When it launches on May 20th, it won't only be testing a new type of Hall effect thruster for the Air Force, it will also be carrying a collection of 100 different materials that can potentially be used for future spacecraft, rovers, rockets and other space hardware. The project is called Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS), and it was designed to build on the data gathered from previous testing onboard the ISS. Any material meant to be used in space has to undergo rigorous testing first before it's incorporated into billion-dollar machines and vehicles.
Since it's extremely difficult to emulate the conditions of space on Earth, astronomers have to actually send samples out there to see how they'd hold up in harsh environments for extended periods of time. The quarter-sized samples that will take off with the X37B, for instance, will remain in orbit aboard the drone for 200 days. When they get back, a a team will assess how they fared, and manufacturers can choose from among those that performed well.
Ask someone in the street what they know about the Air Force's top-secret space plane and you'll probably wind up getting pinched by the NSA. Nobody can claim to know much about the X-37B, beyond the fact that it's the force's long-term space vehicle, capable of staying in orbit for more than a year at a time. In the run up to the craft's next jaunt around the planet, however, someone has let slip the details of an experiment that it'll be carrying out. According to Spaceflight Now, Air Force officials have revealed that the autonomous drone will be used as the test-bed for a new type of Hall effect thruster.
Now, the biggest problem with spaceflight is that the more fuel a craft carries, the heavier it is to launch. Since it costs roughly $3,000 per pound to put objects above the atmosphere, equipping a shuttle or satellite with enough gas to get around is prohibitively expensive. A Hall thruster lets small craft scrimp on the fuel costs by electrically charging super-light Xenon particles. This mix can then produce a weak but constant source of propulsion, perfect for making small adjustments to your trajectory in space. The trade-off, of course, is that the mix isn't strong, so the thruster has to burn for longer in order to do the same job. Imagine it a bit like trying to push a gondola with a twig: it's lighter in your hand than a pole, but it'll take you a lot longer to get somewhere.