February 27, 2024

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The secret X-37B spaceplane returns to orbit with support from SpaceX

The secret X-37B spaceplane returns to orbit with support from SpaceX

The US Army is preparing to launch its secret X-37B spaceplane on a seventh mission into orbit.

The unmanned vehicle, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, is scheduled to lift off Sunday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during a 10-minute launch window that opens at 8:14 p.m. ET. For the first time, the X-37B will be launched into orbit atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Since its debut more than a decade ago, the X-37B has been a source of intrigue within the space community, mostly due to the mysterious nature of its activities in low Earth orbit. Although its true purpose or location is not known, sky watchers have occasionally spotted the spaceplane and photographed it in the night sky using telescopes.

The US Space Force does not typically disclose classified aspects of X-37B missions. As such, little is known about the types of activities a robotic vehicle performs in orbit.

For this upcoming flight, dubbed OTV-7, the X-37B will conduct various tests, including “experimenting space domain awareness techniques and investigating radiation effects on NASA materials,” according to the Space Force.

In the X-37B’s final mission, which spanned 908 days in orbit, the spaceplane lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Before that, the spacecraft was launched into space five times using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rockets. The Falcon Heavy rocket is much more powerful than both, allowing the X-37B to operate in “new orbital regimes,” Space Force officials said. He said in a statement.

It is not known how long the X-37B will remain in space, or where and at what altitude it will eventually orbit.

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The Army is tight-lipped about such operations, but the Space Force said the X-37B’s missions “are essential to ensuring safe and responsible operations in space for all users of the space domain.”

“This seventh flight of the X-37B continues to demonstrate the innovative spirit of the U.S. Space Force,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. He said in a statement.

The small spaceplane was manufactured by Boeing and is about 29 feet long. Like NASA’s space shuttles, the X-37B is designed to return to Earth and land on a runway.

The vehicle was launched on its first mission in 2010 and has since logged 3,774 days in orbit over six flights.

In previous outings, Space Force officials said the X-37B’s civil science experiments included tests of technology to harness solar energy and transmit power to Earth, as well as experiments on how organic materials behave when exposed to the space environment for long periods of time. time.