SpaceX launches mysterious space plane

X-37B vehicle could remain in Earth orbit for years

3 mins read

SpaceX is set to launch a mysterious aircraft into orbit on Monday as part of a mission for the US Space Force.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA, tonight (December 11) at 8:14 p.m. Eastern Time (04:14 a.m. Tuesday morning), carrying the mysterious X-37B space plane on its 7th mission.

While the US Space Force has not revealed many details about what the aircraft will do in orbit, it has tested experimental propulsion systems and worked with “advanced materials” on previous missions.

According to the US Space Force, the latest mission has “a wide range of test and experiment objectives”. These include “operating in new orbital regimes, experimenting with space domain awareness technologies, and investigating radiation effects on NASA materials.”

Ahead of the mission, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said:

This is the 7th flight of the X-37B and continues to demonstrate the innovative vision of the United States Space Force.

The uncrewed vehicle resembles a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttle, and SpaceX’s larger Falcon Heavy rocket booster is supposed to carry it into orbit.

SpaceX launches mysterious space plane 1
Technicians inspect the X-37B unmanned space plane at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (AP)

The launch was originally scheduled for Sunday but had to be postponed due to bad weather.

“Falcon Heavy is targeted for launch on Monday, December 11 for the USSF-52 mission, with weather conditions forecast to be 70 percent favorable for liftoff Monday night,” SpaceX announced on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday.

The team will use this time to complete additional pre-launch checks.

This will be the 92nd rocket SpaceX will launch into orbit in 2023, with 8 more launches planned before the end of this record-breaking year for the private space firm.

SpaceX to launch mysterious space plane tonight

The X-37B’s return date and altitude once in orbit are unknown, but the Space Force’s statement that it will operate in “new orbital regimes” suggests that this could be its highest and longest flight to date.

Since its first mission in 2010, the Boeing-built vehicle has spent the equivalent of 10 years in space with 6 flights.

When the spacecraft returns, it will land on the runway, similar to how NASA’s space shuttle brings astronauts back to Earth.



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