Falcon Heavy vertical on the LC-39A pad for USSF-52 launch mission. Credits: SpaceX.

The X-37B Flies for the First Time on the Falcon Heavy Rocket

On December 29, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launched for the first time the USSF X-37B spaceplane into space for its seventh mission (OTV-7)

On December 29, 2023, at 01:07 UTC, a Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center LC-39A pad, launching the X-37B Vehicle 2 spaceplane into Earth’s orbit for the first time. The two side boosters, designed B1064-5 and B1065-5, landed on Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) and 2 (LZ-2) at 01:15 UTC, while the center stage splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.

A secret lab in space

Aerodynamically developed from the Space Shuttle’s design, the X-37B is an uncrewed spaceplane operated by the United States Space Force to run classified missions in Earth orbit.

STS-31 Discovery, Orbiter Vehicle (OV) 103, glides toward EAFB landing. Credits: NASA
STS-31 Discovery, Orbiter Vehicle (OV) 103, glides toward EAFB landing. Credits: NASA

Its propulsion system allows the vehicle to change orbit and, eventually, act as a space tug for its payloads. Thanks to this significant capability, the X-37 could also be used to raise the orbit of existing satellites to increase their lifespan.

A crew of vehicle handlers clad in suits to protect against hazardous materials approach the X-37B after its second mission at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credits: USSF
A crew of vehicle handlers clad in suits to protect against hazardous materials approach the X-37B after its second mission at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credits: USSF

There has been speculation about spying missions and experiments to test new and emerging space technologies. However, only a few of them have been revealed so far.

The Photovoltaic Radio-Frequency Antenna Module (PRAM) was one of the public experiments run during mission OTV-6. It successfully tested components for the space solar power technology.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6) successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Nov. 12, 2022. Credits: USSF.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 (OTV-6) successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Nov. 12, 2022. Credits: USSF

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Orbital Test Vehicle 7 (OTV-7)

This new X-37B mission is the seventh of the program, the fourth for Vehicle 2. The spaceplane will operate at higher orbits, Geostationary or Geosynchronous (or both). This new requirement is one of the reasons why the USSF chose Falcon Heavy as a launcher for the first time. Previously, it was launched five times on the Atlas V 501 and once on the Falcon 9 Block 4.

“We are excited to expand the envelope of the reusable X-37B’s capabilities, using the flight-proven service module and Falcon Heavy rocket to fly multiple cutting-edge experiments for the Department of the Air Force and its partners.”

—Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, the X-37B Program Director
X-37B featuring the United States Space Force logo for the first time. Credits: U.S. Space Force.
X-37B featuring the United States Space Force logo for the first time. Credits: U.S. Space Force

For OTV-7, the spaceplane has been equipped with its service module, providing room for additional payloads, such as future space domain awareness technologies and a NASA experiment called Seeds-2 (see article X-37B Spaceplane Will Soon Fly On Falcon Heavy for more details).


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Giancarlo Albertinazzi

Giancarlo Albertinazzi

Space Ambassador, Terranaut, Future Spacepolitan, Writer of Becoming Spacepolitans Blog

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