The X-37B space plane, an enigmatic robotic spacecraft operated by the U.S. Space Force, was set to liftoff Sunday night atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. However, the launch was postponed to no earlier than Monday night due to poor weather conditions.
The uncrewed X-37B space plane has flown six previous missions, conducting classified experiments and technology demonstrations for extended periods while circling the Earth. This will be its first ride on the Falcon Heavy and its longest mission yet at 9-12 months, significantly extending its prior flight duration record of 780 days.
Launch Delay and Preparations
The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and X-37B spacecraft were in launch position Sunday night when the 45th Weather Squadron predicted only a 30% chance of favorable conditions, prompting a 24-hour delay. The Air Force stated that the vehicle and payload remain healthy while teams assess weather and prepare for the next launch attempt.
Equipped with 27 Merlin engines generating 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, the Falcon Heavy will deliver the X-37B to orbit from the historic Launch Complex 39A. The site supported Apollo moon missions and Space Shuttle launches before SpaceX leased it for commercial flights.
“The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is proud to partner with both the outstanding team from the Space and Missiles Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise Small Launch and Targets Division and SpaceX to further develop launch partnerships,” said Col. Joseph Roth, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and Air Force program executive officer for space rapid capabilities.
Key Mission Objectives
While specifics remain classified, the X-37B will conduct various experiments during its months-long orbit, testing advanced guidance, navigation and control systems, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature materials and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials, and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.
“The Falcon Heavy allows us to deliver more experiments into orbit within a single mission than ever before,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president for SpaceX’s Space Business Unit.
This X-37B mission, designated Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 7 (OTV-7), will host more experiments than any prior flight. Past experiments involved advanced structural materials, thermal protection systems, avionics, and thrusters.
The Secretary of the Air Force stated that experiments will range from advanced Radio Frequency (RF) capabilities to test the utility of reusable space vehicles for applications like rapid technology refresh, flexible space access, and rapid launch. The mission parameters allow exposure of experiments to extended periods in the space environment beyond that of previous missions.
Spacecraft Capabilities and Operations
The reusable X-37B space plane operates autonomously in orbit after separating from its booster, running experiments and transmitting data. It uses an advanced heat shield to withstand intense heat and stress of atmospheric reentry as it glides back to Earth like an aircraft for runway landings.
At 29 feet long with a 15-foot wingspan, the solar-powered robotic space plane resembles a miniature Space Shuttle. It leverages decades of prior NASA and Air Force research including the Boeing X-40 space maneuvering vehicle and NASA X-37 technology demonstrator.
While most specifics are classified, the vehicle’s capabilities likely include:
- Long duration flight for months or years
- Highly maneuverable orbit with frequent altitude adjustments
- Deployment and retrieval of small satellites
- Testing of advanced guidance, navigation and control
- Hosting modular payload bay for hosting experiments
- Autonomous reentry and runway landing
Its prior missions set long duration flight records while hosting unknown payloads and experiments. The X-37B provides the U.S. rapid access to space for flexible on-orbit capabilities.
Classified Mission Details
The X-37B’s missions, activities, and most details remain classified. The Space Force does selectively release some mission parameters:
|April 22, 2010
|December 3, 2010
|March 5, 2011
|June 16, 2012
|December 11, 2012
|October 17, 2014
|May 20, 2015
|May 7, 2017
|September 7, 2017
|October 27, 2019
|May 17, 2020
|May 9, 2022
The vehicle aims to risk-reduce new space capabilities and accelerate development timelines for reusable spacecraft technologies. After this mission concludes, the X-37B may launch again, continuing to pioneer ops in orbit.
After resolving the weather issues, SpaceX will proceed with launch countdown and liftoff from Kennedy Space Center, first landing the Falcon Heavy boosters followed by deployment of the X-37B into orbit. The space plane will then conduct its secret activities and experiments over an extended mission lasting at least 270 days based on its fuel supply.
When the flight concludes, the X-37B will fire its engine to drop out of orbit and re-enter the atmosphere. It will execute a fully autonomous glide back to Earth for a runway landing, most likely at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility. Just like the Space Shuttle, the space plane lands horizontally without powered vertical landing capability.
After this mission returns, the Space Force may refurbish and reuse this reusable X-37B vehicle for another flight. Additional test vehicles are believed to be undergoing ground processing or storage in preparation for future missions.
The X-37B OTV-7 mission will significantly advance reusable space vehicle operations, hosting more experiments over a longer duration flight than prior missions. While most details remain undisclosed, this secretive space plane continues pioneering advanced technologies to enhance space capabilities.
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