USAF spaceplane back on Earth after mystery 2-year jaunt in orbit. Jeepers creepers, what has it been doing up here?

Happy Halloween, folks!

Man wearing ghost costume

Round Up While the past seven days were light on launches, space fans had plenty to enjoy, with the Air Force's mystery mini Space Shuttle finally returning from space and the James Webb Space Telescope inching closer to blast-off.

Happy Halloween! Mysterious Space Shuttle touches down after two-year orbital mission

It has been a while (780 days to be exact) but the US Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle touched down at the old Shuttle Landing Facility over the weekend after a mystery mission.

The mission takes the total number of days on-orbit to 2,865 and has broken the vehicle's own on-orbit record. The reusable and uncrewed spacecraft had started the fifth orbital mission of the program atop a Falcon 9 back in 2017 although, as ever, much of the payload was top-secret.

The X-37B itself resembles a miniature Space Shuttle, clocking in at just under 9 metres in length, with a wingspan of just over 4.5 metres. Payloads are stuffed into the 2.1 x 1.2 metre bay and solar energy is used to keep things running while on orbit (unlike the fuel cells of the Space Shuttle.)

Originally developed by NASA and Boeing, the technology was transferred to the military and promptly classified ahead of its secret missions in orbit.

The US Air Force was naturally pleased as punch to welcome the spacecraft back, and keen to remind the US administration that it would be more than happy to slurp some extra military space spending: "The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force," said Air Force chief of staff General David L Goldfein, "and, if Congress approves, the US Space Force."

Luca Parmitano and co prep for ambitious AMS-02 spacewalk

First DJ in space, Luca Parmitano (aka DJ AstroLuca) and Andrew Morgan are due to embark on an ambitious series of spacewalks to repair the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) attached to the International Space Station's (ISS) starboard truss segment.

ESA astronaut Parmitano, now on his second to mission to the ISS, had a brush with disaster back in 2013 when his second EVA from the outpost had to be abruptly terminated after his helmet began filling with water thanks to a borked cooling system.

While NASA has said the job consists of "an upgraded thermal control system", ESTEC's director of technology, engineering and quality, Franco Ongaro, told The Register the task was "one of the most ambitious EVAs ever done" and said that "Luca and his friend have to intervene on something which was never designed to be maintained with gloves on an EVA."

Hopefully the "hundred hours in the tank" spent by Parmitano & co practising the repair will stand them in good stead.

Got sunscreen? James Webb Telescope clears sun shield testing

There was good news last week for NASA's beleaguered James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), as the over-budget and forever-delayed spacecraft passed a critical test.

Engineers successfully deployed and tensioned each of the five layers of the telescope's sunshield, just as if it were in its target location, a million miles from Earth.

There are, of course, no plans to service the thing if the process fails in deep space.

The sun shield is critical, since the JWST is optimised for infrared light and as such its optics must be kept extremely cold. The outermost layer that faces the Sun could hit 383 Kelvin, while the innermost will be around 36 Kelvin – or cold enough to freeze oxygen solid, according to boffins.

Engineers used pulleys and weights to simulate the gravity environment of space, and now face the arduous task of folding the thing away again. Deployed, the sun-shield has a wingspan comparable to a tennis court, but must fit into five metre diameter rocket fairing for the much anticipated – and delayed – launch. ®

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