Space Force Sends Highly Classified Unmanned Plane Back Into Orbit
Space Force Sends Highly Classified Unmanned Plane Back Into Orbit

By T. J. Muscaro

A fiery light returned to the skies over Cape Canaveral, Florida, shortly after sunset on Dec. 28 as a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket blazed another trail into the heavens. Its passenger was the United States Air Force’s (USAF) secret unmanned spaceplane known as the X-37B.

This launch was the ninth flight of the three-core launch vehicle—which is currently the second-most powerful in operation after the Space Launch System (SLS), the new moon rocket from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA)—and the seventh flight of the X-37B.

The pair was previously scheduled to launch on Dec. 10 but reported issues with ground equipment 30 minutes before liftoff, which caused the event to be pushed back 18 days.

Officially dubbed USSF-52, the unmanned vehicle will venture into different types of orbit around the Earth and serve as a testing ground for NASA’s study of the effects of long-duration exposure to space on organic materials.

The mission will also include experiments with technology for “space domain awareness,” which the USSF defines as the ability  to “rapidly detect, warn, characterize, attribute, and predict threats to national, allied, and commercial space systems.”

“This seventh flight of the X-37B continues to demonstrate the innovative spirit of the United States Space Force,” Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said in a press release.

Testing of such threat-detection technologies comes as tensions between the United States and a space-faring communist China remain high.

The Falcon Heavy has now launched five times in 2023, and while the space-enamored public is becoming more familiar with it, its cargo largely remains a mystery.

First launched in April 2010, much of the 29-foot-long robotic vehicle’s activities during its 3,774 total days in space remain classified. Even its return date remains unknown.

Designed by Boeing and operated by the United States Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B—also known as OTV-7—can fly as high as 500 miles above the Earth’s surface and carry out missions lasting 270 days.

Featuring several similarities to the retired space shuttle—such as a cargo bay, black-tiled heat shield, and ability to land like an airplane—it is one-fourth the size, offering what Boeing describes on its website as “the best of aircraft and spacecraft into an affordable system that is easy to operate and maintain.”

Previous missions, according to the USSF, have included experiments involving technology from the Naval Research Laboratory designed to harness solar energy and transmit power to the ground, testing the effects of organic material’s long-duration exposure to space and offering an opportunity for U.S. Air Force Academy cadets to design, operate, and launch their own spacecraft.

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