Thursday, 21 February, 2019

Air Force's Secretive X-37B To Launch Aboard SpaceX Falcon 9

A fighter pilot conducts pre-flight checks inside an F-35A Lightning II before a training missi Air Force's Secretive X-37B To Launch Aboard SpaceX Falcon 9
Theresa Hayes | 08 June, 2017, 00:37

On Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force announced that in August, it'll be launching a reusable X-37B mini-space shuttle on board a Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket engines are made entirely in the U.S.

U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told a Senate committee she was not concerned about the U.S. air base in Qatar despite Saudi Arabia's decision to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar in a coordinated move with Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Wilson disclosed the launch contract at a Congressional hearing on June 6, citing the low cost of SpaceX's launch services, but it is not clear when the contract was awarded.

Whatever the X-37B is doing up there, SpaceX's rise as a rocket competitor is making the drone's work cheaper than ever before. Payloads are never revealed. The goal of the mission for the space planes have never been clearly stated by the military but the Air Force defines its primary objectives as a reusable and experiment spacecraft which can be returned to and examined on Earth. It has spent 2,085 days in orbit so far.

The announcement comes as a major win in the aerospace defense industry for SpaceX because all prior launches of X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) were aboard United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket.

ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

SpaceX, founded 15 years ago by billionaire Elon Musk, won the rights in 2014 to bid on military contracts after a legal battle with the government over the issue. SpaceX recently launched a clandestine payload for the National Reconnaissance Office-a spy satellite agency that previously did business exclusively with ULA.

It was thought SpaceX's first Air Force mission would be the launch of a Global Positioning System satellite announced previous year and scheduled for some time in 2018. The first mission saw the plane stay in orbit for 224 days. The third mission lasted 674 days.

The US Air Force has two X-37B space planes, and since 2010 each of them have flown two missions into outer space.

This would seem to bear out based on what is now known of SpaceX's launch manifest, which prior to X-37B's August launch date announcement showed only two missions schedule from LC-39A that month. But it returns to earth like a plane, landing on a runway at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, where its manufacturer, Boeing, maintains a facility dedicated to the project.

It's still not exactly clear what the X-37B does while in space, though it certainly spends a lot of time up there.