The newly created US Space Force successfully launched a X-37B space plane (also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sunday, the vehicle’s sixth mission into space. The vehicle’s official purpose is to conduct orbital spaceflight missions in order to investigate reusable space technologies. Its previous mission, launched in September 2017, was in space for 780 days and landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on 27 October 2019.
Barbara Barrett, secretary of the US Air Force, announced the liftoff on her Twitter page, calling the mission “a prime example of government-industry partnerships enhancing National Security Space.”
The US reportedly possesses two X-37B vehicles, which are made by Boeing (following the construction of one X-37A) and are derived from Boeing’s X-40. The X-37 project was initiated by NASA in 1999 before being transferred to the US Department of Defense in 2004. It is an unmanned spacecraft that has a vertical take-off (carried by a launch vehicle) and lands like a conventional aircraft. The vehicle’s first flight took place on 7 April 2006.
The X-37B space craft was launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Few details have been revealed about the craft’s mission. A report by the Defense News website reported that in a meeting with a small group of reporters prior to the launch, Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond stated: “We’ve learned a lot from the X-37. One of the things that we’ve learned is the value of reusability, and I think as a Space Force there’s a couple things that we’re really going to value, and reusability is one of those and autonomy is another one.”
Although the early stages of the launch were broadcast live, the broadcast was terminated after the separation of the first stage. United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno stated:
“It’s a classified mission, and what is classified about it is the details of the vehicle itself, the mission it will do on orbit and where it will do that. Therefore we have to stop the live broadcast so that we do not make it easy for adversaries to figure those things out by having that much data about the flight and deployment.”
A report by Loren Grush for The Verge provided some more details. According to the report:
“The Air Force claims that the experiments and technology that the X-37B carries “enables the US to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain.” This mission will have even more experiments than usual, thanks to the addition of a new service module — a cylindrical structure attached to the bottom of the spaceplane that will be packed with technology to be tested on orbit. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments,” Randy Walden, director and program executive officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.”
Other details provided include that the X-37B will carry a small FalconSat-8 satellite developed by the US Air Force Academy which in turn contains five experimental payloads. The vehicle will also be used to conduct experiments on behalf of NASA and the US Naval Academy, whose objectives are stated to include researching the effects of radiation on seeds and transforming solar power into radio frequencies that could be transmitted to the Earth’s surface.