SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches X-37B, one of the US military's best-kept secrets

Scott Shelk/Siba

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket stands on the launch pad before the attempted launch of the US military's X-37B spaceplane on December 11. The company postponed the launch at the time.



CNN

SpaceX's massive Falcon Heavy rocket will return to the skies on Thursday evening, this time launching a mysterious US military spacecraft that will conduct cutting-edge research.

The rocket is scheduled to lift off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:07 p.m. ET, carrying the X-37B military spaceplane – which is unmanned and operates autonomously – to unprecedented heights. The launch will be broadcast live SpaceX website.

But it's not clear exactly where the space plane is headed.

The X-37B's activities in space have long been a subject of fascination and speculation in the space community as amateur enthusiasts race to track its whereabouts and share theories about its activities.

Resembling a miniature NASA space shuttle with tinted windows, the reusable and fully autonomous X-37B is known for researching concepts such as Transferring solar energy from space for use back on Earth And studying the effects of radiation on seeds used in growing food.

This mission – the seventh flight into space for the X-37B – promises to be more interesting than previous flights.

Sgt. Adam Shanks/US Space Force

The X-37B orbital test vehicle will conclude its sixth successful mission in 2022.

This launch will mark the first time the spaceplane has made a flight aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, one of these vehicles The most powerful operational missiles In the world.

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Previously, the X-37B was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle and an Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The Falcon Heavy produces more thrust than those two rockets combined.

A Falcon Heavy launch could signal that the X-37B is headed to farther orbits, perhaps even to the Moon or Mars, suggested Paul Graziani, CEO of COMSPOC, a company dedicated to tracking objects in space.

If the spacecraft travels deeper into the universe than previous missions, it may be very difficult for skygazers on Earth to determine where the spacecraft is.

If the military doesn't want people tracking the X-37B, the vehicle could be hidden in the glare of the sun or by various other means — including changing its location frequently, Graziani added. The X-37B has already proven in previous flights that it is capable of performing multiple maneuvers in space.

COMSPOC will attempt to search for the craft if the spacecraft ends up in geosynchronous orbit, which is about 22,400 miles (36,000 kilometers) from Earth and is where most large communications satellites operate. Geosynchronous orbit is where the company focuses its sensors to track satellites, said Graziani and Bob Hall, director of operations integration at COMSPOC.

“I think this is one of the most interesting things that has happened in space in a long time, whatever it does,” Graziani said of the X-37B launch.

The X-37B allows the United States to conduct experiments to understand how to improve ongoing and upcoming space operations and push the boundaries of what is possible, according to a statement from Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations.

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Among the research conducted on board this mission is a NASA experiment aimed at finding ways to support astronauts on future deep space missions. Called Seeds-2, the project will “expose plant seeds to the harsh radiation environment of long-duration spaceflight” and build on research conducted on previous X-37B missions.

Learning how to grow food in the harsh, soilless environment of outer space could be crucial for astronauts on long missions to the moon or beyond, places where delivering fresh supplies is difficult.

It is unclear how long the spacecraft will spend in orbit for this mission, although historically each X-37B flight has been longer than the last.

The X-37B autonomous spacecraft's final flight into space concluded in November 2022 after the spacecraft logged nearly 909 consecutive days in space. During that sixth mission, as CNN previously reported, the spaceplane carried experimental technology designed by the US Navy to convert solar energy and… Send it back to Earthaccording to the army.

The X-37B has already spent more than 3,700 days in space on other unmanned missions. When it returns to Earth, it will land on the runway, just like a plane swoops out of the sky.

This launch comes after more than… Two weeks Of delay. SpaceX was ready to launch on December 10. The launch was postponed twice due to weather and problems with the ground platform before SpaceX suddenly postponed the mission indefinitely “to conduct additional system checks.”

But during the pause, China – which the US government considers its own Main competitor In the modern space race – she sent her secret spacecraft into orbit.

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Little is known about the spacecraft coming from China. Some in the industry speculate that it is similar to the X-37B in form and function, although no official images of the vehicle have been released.

China's state-run Xinhua News Agency mentioned Launched by the secret spacecraft aboard a Long March 2F rocket.

The agency's publication added only that during its stay in space, the vehicle will test reusable space technology and conduct unspecified scientific experiments “for the peaceful use of space.”

It is not clear how long the Chinese space plane will spend in orbit.

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