The US Air Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane is set to go off on another secret mission in space, but its trip into space will come courtesy of a new partner: SpaceX. The launch is currently scheduled for September 7th at Cape Canaveral, just days ahead of the potential landfall of Hurricane Irma. There’s a chance the launch will be postponed due to weather, and no one knows what the X-37B will get up to even if it is launched successfully tomorrow.
This will be the fifth flight for the X-37B and the first one performed by SpaceX. All previous X-37B missions have used an Atlas V rocket operated by United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing). The Falcon 9 is already prepped and waiting on the famed 39A launch pad at Cape Canaveral, the location of NASA’s Saturn V launches. Following the launch, SpaceX intends to land the first stage booster at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 several minutes later. That’s becoming standard practice for SpaceX as it consistently nails landings at sea on its unmanned drone ship. It should be no problem setting down on solid land.
The X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) was designed for the US government by Boeing. It’s about 29 feet long and weighs in at 11,000 pounds. It began as a NASA project based on the design of the Space Shuttle, but it was transferred to the Department of Defense in 2004. It is launched atop a rocket, but lands like the Space Shuttle on a conventional runway. It’s an unmanned spacecraft, but all other details of its nature are speculative. Reports have claimed the X-37B is conducting spy missions, testing new equipment for military satellites, and even that it’s testing new methods of propulsion. Its ability to land in one piece allows researchers to examine all the equipment it carried into orbit.
An X-37B launch in 2015 with an Atlas V rocket.
Forecasts currently point to a roughly 50 percent chance that the launch will take place during the launch window between 9:50 AM and 2:55 PM. Weather is only expected to become worse later in the week as Hurricane Irma begins to affect wind conditions and atmospheric pressure. There may not be any particular rush for the Air Force — the X-37B tends to remain in space for months at a time running tests. In fact, its most recent deployment lasted a whopping 718 days, a record for a reusable spacecraft. No one knows how long this mission will last.
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