The US Space Force launched the X-37B reusable spaceplane on December 28, 2023 from Cape Canaveral using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, marking the seventh test flight of this experimental robotic craft. Developed since the 1990s, previous launch attempts faced challenges from inclement weather and technical difficulties, the details of which remain undisclosed.
Cloaked in military secrecy, the purpose of the test flight and the broader program is unknown. Previous classified flights focused on testing advanced components like antennae, thrusters, reaction wheels, camera arrays, and cutting-edge materials. Some missions also involved deploying research satellites into orbit for companies like SpaceX.
25 Years Of Testing
The X-37 program originated with the civilian NASA in 1998, contracting Boeing to develop a reusable uncrewed orbital technology demonstrator named Future-X. Initially designed to be carried on the Space Shuttle orbiter, the project shifted to the Delta IV rocket after the 2003 loss of Space Shuttle Columbia. Originally intended for satellite repair, the project evolved to focus on the modern X-37B's satellite carrying and release capabilities.
In 2004, DARPA took control of the early technology demonstrator, turning it into a military project. DARPA oversaw the first aerial drop test, with a later change to US Air Force management marking the shift to the X-37B variant with spaceflight capabilities in 2006.
Over the 17 years under USAF and Space Force management, the X-37B has completed six orbital flights, most lasting over a year. The seventh launch, using SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, continues the testing of reusable spaceflight technology. Speculation surrounds the X-37B's purpose, with concerns about potential testing of orbital weapons systems and spy equipment.
The seventh X-37B launch coincides with a recent Chinese spaceplane test launch, the similarly secretive Shenlong spacecraft. The nature of the payload recently launched by Shenlong is also unknown, highlighting the competitive landscape in spaceflight between the United States and China.
Image credits: NBC News, US Air Force via AP
Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke
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