Goodbye mysterious military space plane, and good luck – wherever you’re going
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket launched a secretive military spaceplane to orbit last night after weeks of delays, though scant details about the mission have been released to the public.
The Falcon Heavy lifted off on the clandestine mission at 8:07 PM Eastern from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The U.S. Space Force’s X-37B space plane, a reusable vehicle that acts as a classified testbed for experiments in space, was the sole payload on the massive rocket.
As with the other six uncrewed X-37B missions, little is known about this mission. The target orbit, mission duration and many of the payloads are classified. Even the windows of the small space plane are blacked out.
One of the big mysteries of this particular mission is the Space Force’s choice to book a triple-boosted Falcon Heavy. This is the first time the military has selected Falcon Heavy for an X-37B mission; previously, the 29-foot long space plane has launched on SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9 and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.
The extra boost could suggest that this mission is heading to farther orbits, though again, the space plane’s mission profile is secret. The Boeing-built X-37B, which looks like a miniature space shuttle, will eventually return to Earth and land on a runway similar to a conventional aircraft.
In a statement, the Space Force said that the mission, designated USSF-52, has objectives including “operating the reusable spaceplane in new orbital regimes, experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies, and investigating the radiation effects on materials provided by NASA.” The only known payload deals with the last of these objectives: a NASA experiment known as Seeds-2, which will explore what happens to plants when they are exposed to the harsh radiation of space.
This is the fifth time SpaceX has launched a Falcon Heavy rocket this year, and the ninth overall since 2018. The successful launch came on the heels of more than two weeks of delays, first due to poor weather and then again due to issues that were not disclosed to the public. It was SpaceX’s 97th launch this year (it completed it’s 98th just hours later, when a Falcon 9 launched a batch of Starlink birds at around 11 PM Eastern).
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