Driving the news
- The Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket in the world, lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in a dazzling display of fire and smoke.
- The launch was delayed for more than two weeks due to bad weather and technical issues, but finally went ahead after a smooth countdown and liftoff.
- The X-37B, a reusable, uncrewed spacecraft that looks like a mini space shuttle, is operated by the US Space Force for classified missions that test new technologies and conduct experiments in orbit.
- The X-37B has flown six previous missions since 2010, each lasting longer than the previous one. The last mission, which ended in October 2021, set a record of 908 days in space.
- The X-37B’s current mission, dubbed OTV-7, is the first to launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket, which has three times the thrust of the Falcon 9 rocket that carried the previous mission.
- The Falcon Heavy could enable the X-37B to reach a higher orbit than before, possibly as high as geosynchronous orbit, where satellites stay over the same point on Earth. The X-37B has previously flown in low-Earth orbit, at altitudes of up to 1,200 miles (2,000 km).
The big picture
The X-37B, a Boeing-built vehicle resembling a miniature space shuttle, has been a cornerstone of the US military’s foray into reusable space technology.Its previous missions, primarily in low-Earth orbit, have been shrouded in secrecy, focusing on testing new technologies and conducting various experiments. The use of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket for this mission highlights a crucial collaboration between the US military and private space industry, showcasing significant advancements in rocket technology and payload delivery.
Why it matters
The X-37B’s latest mission underscores the growing strategic importance of space in national security and technological advancement. Its ability to reach higher orbits and potentially venture near the moon represents a significant leap in capabilities, reflecting the intensifying space race, particularly in the context of US-China rivalry. This mission could pave the way for new forms of space-based surveillance, communication, and other classified operations.
What they are saying
- The Pentagon has remained tight-lipped about the specific objectives of the X-37B’s latest mission, only stating that it will test “new orbital regimes and future space domain awareness technologies.”
- “Maybe this thing’s going go out toward the moon and drop off a payload,” said Bob Hall, director of space traffic monitoring firm COMSPOC, who analyzes the trajectories of orbital objects. The closer the spacecraft flies to the moon, the more difficult it could be to safely return to Earth.
- There was no official word as to whether the X-37B made it to its intended initial orbit following launch.
- Industry analysts and space enthusiasts are speculating that the spacecraft might be headed for a highly elliptical orbit or even towards the moon, a region increasingly of interest to the Pentagon.
- The mission also includes a NASA experiment to study the effects of space radiation on plant seeds, indicating a broader scope of research that could benefit future long-duration space mission.
What to watch out for
- As the X-37B embarks on its latest journey, the mission’s secrecy and potential for higher-orbit operations add a new dimension to space exploration and military capabilities. With the US and China both advancing their respective space technologies, the X-37B’s mission could be a critical step in determining the future dynamics of space exploration and security.
- China’s equally secretive Shenlong was carried to space on December 14 by a Long March 2F rocket, a launch system less powerful than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and believed to be limited to delivering payloads to low-Earth orbit.
- Still, Space Force General B Chance Saltzman told reporters at an industry conference earlier this month he expected China to launch Shenlong around the same time as the X-37B flight in what he suggested was a competitive move.
- “These are two of the most watched objects on orbit while they’re on orbit. It’s probably no coincidence that they’re trying to match us in timing and sequence of this,” Saltzman said, according to remarks published in the journal Air & Space Forces Magazine.
- The duration and outcomes of this mission will be closely watched by governments and space agencies worldwide, eager to understand the evolving landscape of space operations and technology.
(With inputs from agencies)