X-37B. Credits: USSF

X-37B Spaceplane Will Soon Fly On Falcon Heavy

The USSF announced that X-37B will begin its seventh mission a month from now. Unexpectedly, the spaceplane will be launched on board a SpaceX's Falcon Heavy

On November 8, 2023, The United States Space Force announced a launch date for the next flight of the X-37B unmanned spaceplane. Orbital Test Vehicle-7 (OTV-7) will launch on December 7, 2023, on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The launch, designated USSF-52, will take place at Kennedy Space Center.

What we know

The operation of the X-37B, jointly carried out by the USSF and the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, is often shrouded in a veil of secrecy. However, we still received some interesting information.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6) on the Shuttle Landing Facility. Credit: U.S. Space Force
The X-37B on the Shuttle Landing Facility after returning from its sixth mission in 2022. The technicians are wearing protective suits against toxic hypergolic propellants. Credits: USSF

The USSF described the mission as aimed at operating the spaceplane in new orbital regimes, experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies, and flying some NASA experiments.

The mission will be the seventh for the X-37B, and the first one to be launched on a Falcon Heavy. The launch vehicle choice and the mention of new orbital regimes strongly hint at an orbit higher than Low Earth Orbit.

The mission will be the second to use a disposable service module to increase the payload that can be carried. The NASA experiment, dubbed Seeds-2, will expose plant seeds to the radiation environment of space. The data collected might be crucial for future manned spaceflight.

This is not the first time that such experiments have been carried out on the X-37B. In the past, payloads included demonstrators for electric propulsion, antennas, new materials, cameras, and heat pipes. It is likely many more experiments are on board but are classified.


The program

The X-37 began development as a NASA program in 1999. Boeing was contracted to build the vehicle, to demonstrate new reusability technologies. The Space Shuttle would have deployed the spaceplane, which was made to fit into the cargo bay.

The program was eventually transferred to DARPA, and total secrecy descended upon it. Two vehicles were built, and the first flight took place in 2010. So far six flights have taken place. Five were launched on ULA’s Atlas V 501, and one on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Block 4. Every mission exceeded the length of the previous, with the last one spending a whopping 908 days in orbit.

The X-37B enclosed in Falcon Heavy’s fairing. Credits: Boeing
The X-37B enclosed in Falcon Heavy’s fairing. Credits: Boeing

The launch is scheduled for less than a month from now, and work is well underway. The spaceplane, for example, has already been encapsulated into the fairing. When launch occurs, the doubts around the orbit will finally clear up.


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Riccardo Dipietro

Riccardo Dipietro

Second-year aerospace engineering student at the Polytechnical School of Turin. Creator and admin of gourmet_space_memes on Instagram

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