SpaceX made history last night by successfully launching the U.S. Space Force’s X-37B spaceplane aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This marked the first time the uncrewed reusable spacecraft was carried into orbit by Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket.
Launch Marks New Milestones
The picture-perfect nighttime liftoff at 5:40 p.m. EST kickstarted the X-37B’s seventh mission, breaking its own record for the longest reusable spacecraft mission. Furthermore, it signified the first time Falcon Heavy was tasked with lofting such a classified payload into higher orbit.
“From a Space Force perspective, this is a really big night for us,” said Gen. Chance Saltzman, Space Operations Command chief. “Providing the first National Security Space Launch service for the Space Force is a mark in history for Falcon Heavy.”
According to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Falcon Heavy can carry nearly 141,000 pounds (64 metric tons) to orbit, the most since the Saturn V moon rocket last flew in 1973. Thursday’s mission marked Falcon Heavy’s fifth overall launch and first since 2019.
Classified Mission Objectives
Built by Boeing, the solar-powered X-37B spaceplane has deployed small satellites and conducted various classified experiments during previous flights lasting as long as 908 days. However, most details about its missions and payloads remain classified.
“The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming USSF-52 launch a milestone for national security space,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president for Space and Launch at Boeing. “The X-37B will continue to push the boundaries of experimentation, enabled by an unmatched fleet.”
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While specifics remain highly classified, experts speculate the X-37B could be testing advanced electronics or carrying experimental sensors into orbit. Some suggest the spaceplane may even carry small spy satellites to deploy or pick up malfunctioning satellites, though the Pentagon has never confirmed such reports.
Comparing to China’s Spaceplane Program
The launch comes just weeks after China launched a spaceplane prototype of its own on a brief test flight, though much less is known about that vehicle. This has drawn comparisons between the X-37B and China’s proposed spaceplane plans.
“You can absolutely draw comparisons between the two vehicles and surmise that China may be emulating what the U.S. has done with the X-37B,” an expert said. “Except they still have a lot of catching up to do.”
While it’s difficult to compare the two side-by-side due to the classified nature of the X-37B, China’s recently tested spaceplane is thought to be far less capable than America’s vehicle given current technologies.
“China’s spacecraft is following on the coat tails of the X-37B in many respects,” notes Dr Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “The Shenlong is their attempt to reproduce X-37B capabilities.”
Nonetheless, China’s maturing space program does pose an increasing threat the U.S. must stay ahead of:
“There is no doubt that there is an arms race between the US and China in space – this seems to be an attempt by China to replicate the X-37B’s capabilities. Both vehicles remain mysterious and their missions highly secretive.”
Looking Ahead After Successful Launch
By all accounts, Thursday’s launch went off smoothly, with Falcon Heavy delivering its classified payload right on target. In the coming days experts will be keeping close tabs as the X-37B begins its mission in earnest.
While most details remain hidden behind veils of secrecy, it’s expected this latest flight could set more new records. The last mission lasted a whopping 908 days – well over 2 years – neatly demonstrating the cost effectiveness of a reusable vehicle.
SpaceX has shown off Falcon Heavy’s capabilities by flawlessly lofting the critical national security payload. Meanwhile, the X-37B now embarks on its ambitious new mission to push boundaries and continue cementing America’s leadership in space.
This successful launch kicks off what’s shaping up to be an eventful new year in space. China continues advancing its own programs and posing increasing threats to American space dominance. As the new Space Race unfolds, this year will prove pivotal in keeping the U.S. ahead of rivals. Events like this Falcon Heavy launch help ensure America maintains its edge on the high frontier.
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