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US military’s space plane X-37B blasts off on a secretive mission

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The U.S. military’s X-37B space plane has blasted off on another secretive mission that’s expected to last at least a couple of years.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the X-37B spaceplane for the U.S. Space Force lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023. The spaceplane blasted off on another secretive mission that’s expected to last at least a couple of years. (Craig Bailey/Florida Today via AP)(AP)
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the X-37B spaceplane for the U.S. Space Force lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023. The spaceplane blasted off on another secretive mission that’s expected to last at least a couple of years. (Craig Bailey/Florida Today via AP)(AP)

The space plane took off aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at night, more than two weeks late because of technical issues. Like previous missions, the reusable plane resembling a mini space shuttle will be carrying classified experiments. It will be an unmanned mission.

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The classified mission, conducted by the U.S. Space Force under the National Security Space Launch program, will conduct tests in new orbital regimes and space domain awareness technologies.

Significance of X-37B launch

Notably, this launch marked the first time the X-37B was carried by the more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, hinting at a potential for higher orbital flights than its usual low-Earth orbit. The spacecraft is designed for long-duration orbital flights to carry various payloads and technology experiments. It’s also known for its ability to autonomously land on a runway like an airplane, following its mission completion.

The duration of the X-37B’s current mission hasn’t been disclosed, but it’s expected to follow the pattern of successively longer flights, possibly extending until June 2026 or later. The previous mission lasted over two years, setting a record for the program.

These missions represent significant advances in reusable space technologies and underline the strategic importance of space in national security and scientific research domains.

X-37B’s launch coincides with China’s Shenlong

Coinciding closely with the X-37B’s launch was China’s Shenlong space plane’s third mission since 2020. The Shenlong, also a secretive project, is believed to be limited to low-Earth orbit deliveries. The concurrent timing of these missions has been noted as a reflection of the growing space rivalry between the U.S. and China, with both nations showing a keen interest in each other’s spaceplane technologies.

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