SpaceX successfully launched the U.S. Space Force’s X-37B reusable spaceplane Sunday night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, kicking off the orbital test vehicle’s seventh mystery mission.
Falcon Heavy Rocket Powers Spaceplane To Orbit
The autonomous X-37B spaceplane rode SpaceX’s powerful Falcon Heavy rocket into orbit from historic Launch Complex 39A, the same pad used by NASA’s Apollo moon missions and space shuttles. Liftoff occurred right on time at 5:40 p.m. EST at the opening of a 2-hour launch window.
About 8.5 minutes after liftoff, SpaceX successfully landed the two side boosters back at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Landing Zones 1 and 2 nearly simultaneously. The core booster was scheduled to land on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship stationed out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Through the use of reusable rockets, SpaceX has pioneered low-cost access to space. This marks the fifth overall launch of the Falcon Heavy configuration, the world’s most powerful operational rocket.
Longest X-37B Mission Yet Will Further Test Reusability
This Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-7) mission is slated to last a record-setting two years with several objectives to “advance the development of reusable space vehicle technologies,” according to an Air Force statement.
The solar-powered spaceplane has flown six increasingly longer missions over its 11-year lifespan, clocking a cumulative 3,774 days on-orbit. X-37B set an endurance record during its last 678-day flight, which concluded with a dramatic nighttime landing at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility in May 2020.
|Days in Orbit
|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 8, 2022
The ability to land the spaceplane like an aircraft allows the Air Force to expand testing of new systems by sending experiments back and forth. Adding to the vehicle’s flexibility, the X-37B can launch on different rockets to accommodate payload mass and desired orbit parameters.
“The ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth is unique to the X-37B program and enables the U.S. to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain,” said an Air Force spokesperson.
Experiments Further Space Capabilities While Details Stay Classified
The exact payloads and technologies being tested on OTV-7 remain classified. The service’s Rapid Capabilities Office manages the X-37B program, which conducts experiments for multiple government and commercial partners.
Past experiments have evaluated advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature antennas, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials, and autonomous orbital flight, rendezvous, and landing systems, according to the Air Force.
“This X-37B mission will host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president for Space and Launch at Boeing.
Boeing built two X-37B spaceplanes for the Air Force and continues supporting mission operations. The company recently won a contract to develop a new generation of reusable vehicles called the X-37C.
Space Force Prioritizes Resiliency With Secret Plane
The X-37B provides Space Force with a flexible test platform completely under U.S. control. China has pursued its own secretive spaceplane program over the past decade, fuelling military concerns about falling behind technologically.
Gen. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations, highlighted the importance of the X-37B’s increased endurance. “The ability to continue to advance capabilities is critical for maintaining space superiority in the future,” Saltzman said.
X-37B allows Space Force to conduct experiments that “support space transformation” and “sustain future competition” against rival space powers, Saltzman added.
The renewed focus on resilience comes as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has elevated threats in space. In late 2021, Russia launched a new anti-satellite missile, and China has continued testing technologies that could threaten U.S. satellites.
Having operational experience with reusable spaceplanes better postures the Pentagon to field next-generation systems able to evade attacks. The Space Force is moving towards more proliferated architectures that complicate targeting for adversaries.
Next-Gen Spaceplanes Under Development As Future Warfighting Edge
The Air Force awarded Boeing an undefinitized contract action worth up to $93 million in June 2022 to begin designing two new X-37C vehicles. Featuring expanded payload capacity, the reusable spacecraft builds off prior X-37B missions to further advance reusability.
The X-37C will leverage various new technologies to “provide the U.S. with an affordable, reusable spacecraft able to test systems in Earth orbit,” said Chilton after contract announcement last summer.
Beyond testing hardware, having operational experience sends a strong signal to rivals while allowing Space Force to pioneer concepts relevant for future warfighting.
“The X-37C aircraft will increase resiliency by enabling additional test capacity and flexibility,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, of the Department of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.
The focus on test and development aligns with the Pentagon’s push towards new acquisition approaches. Space Force leadership is emphasizing prototyping and risk-taking under the Orbital Prime vision as budgets continue getting squeezed.
Highly Dynamic Launch Schedule Continues At Cape Canaveral
While the X-37B mission slipped one day, SpaceX still has an incredibly busy manifest in December. Just yesterday, the company launched a communications satellite for Asia Broadband. Later today, Dec. 12, SpaceX is targeting the launch of a GPS satellite for Space Force.
The rapid operations tempo is set to continue in the new year. In early 2023, SpaceX has a packed schedule of national security, civil space agency, and private customer missions.
NASA’s mega moon rocket also could finally get off the ground in the coming months after years of delays. If schedules hold, the first flight of the massive Space Launch System (SLS) will occur no earlier than late March 2023.
Boeing leads development of the SLS for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to establish a long-term human presence at the moon. Contracts worth over $20 billion have gone towards designing America’s most powerful rocket ever that will propel the Orion crew capsule to our celestial neighbor.
The recent X-37B launch utilized two SpaceX rockets that were flight-proven, showcasing the promise of reusability to radically reduce costs. As new spaceplanes and rockets come online, Cape Canaveral is set to stay extremely active launching innovative technologies to fuel continued American space superiority.
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