A year after the U.S. military’s secretive X-37B set a record for spending more than 900 days in orbit, Space Force’s space plane is heading back to outer space.
U.S. Space Force confirmed this week that the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle will take flight again next month. The OTV’s seventh mission, dubbed USSF-52, will launch Dec. 7 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This time around, the space plane is using a Falcon Heavy rocket from SpaceX for its launch. It’s a change from the previous mission, which utilized an Atlas V rocket for liftoff (the Atlas V was also used for the first four missions; the fifth used SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9).
“We are excited to expand the envelope of the reusable X-37B’s capabilities, using the flight-proven service module and Falcon Heavy rocket to fly multiple cutting-edge experiments for the Department of the Air Force and its partners,” Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, X-37B Program Director, said in a statement from Space Force.
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The military has been relatively quiet about the exact missions and capabilities of the X-37B. For this mission, also called OTV-7, Space Force described the objective as helping to “expand the United States Space Force’s knowledge of the space environment by experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies.” The one confirmed experiment is NASA’s Seeds-2, which will test how plant seeds are impacted by radiation from “long-duration spaceflight.” That is the one hint of the mission’s length; Space Force has not said how long the X-37B will be in orbit this time, or if it will be more than the prior mission.
The military has been working on space planes in some form for decades. The X-37 program, initially started by NASA, transferred to Air Force Space Command in 2004, and the X-37B made it into orbit for the first time in 2010. Since 2019 the program has been under the purview of Space Force. The reusable space plane is controlled from Earth and doesn’t require a crew, allowing it to stay in orbit for long periods of time.
That’s what it did in its previous mission. OTV-6 launched in May 2020 and the X-37B returned to Earth in November 2022 after 908 days in outer space. That mission carried a series of experiments, aided by the addition of a service module. Alongside two NASA experiments, the space plane deployed a small satellite into orbit during its time in space.
News of the new mission comes a month after Space Force unveiled its first official painting, depicting a space plane en route to intercept an adversarial satellite. Right now, Space Force publicly doesn’t have the ability to carry out that kind of action. However, the painting, “High Ground Intercept,” shows Space Force’s goals, and hints at what kind of role the X-37B could play in the future.