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 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.
And here is the X-37B payload bay doors/radiator opening and solar array deployment segment of the video Boeing released (see my previous tweet) #X37B https://t.co/xIUyZ7T4iR pic.twitter.com/Vf0O1FNquh— DutchSpace (@DutchSpace) September 15, 2020
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 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 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.