The United States Space Force launched the super-secret X-37B plane into space on Sunday morning on its sixth mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
After Saturday’s launch was scrubbed, due to high winds from a tropical depression moving through the south, the spacecraft, attached to an Atlas 5 rocket, blasted off from its launch pad just before 9:15 a.m.
The X-37B is an unmanned, reusable spacecraft that takes off vertically and lands horizontally on a runway. It is manufactured by Boeing and, although much smaller, resembles the now-decommissioned Space Shuttle vehicles.
The spacecraft measures 29 feet long and has a wingspan of 15 feet. It weighs 11,000 pounds and uses solar panels for power in orbit. The X-37B first flew in 2010 and safely returned after an eight-month mission. Its most recent mission was concluded in October of 2019 after it completed 780 days in orbit. The X-37B program started back in 1999.
The Air Force/Space Force currently has two X-37B vehicles. It has been tight-lipped as to what its capabilities are and what its space missions, other than the conduction of scientific experiments, will be.
About two weeks ago, when the launch was announced during a webcast hosted by the Space Foundation, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said the following:
“The Air Force’s Rapid Capability Office has combined forces with the Air Force Reserve Research Lab and now the U.S. Space Force to execute a mission that maximizes the X-37B’s unique capabilities. This important mission will host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments. One is a sample plate evaluating the reaction of select significant materials to the conditions in space. The second studies the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds. A third experiment, designed by the Naval Research Laboratory, transforms solar power into radio-frequency microwave energy, then studies transmitting that energy to earth.”
Chief of Space Operations, Gen. John Raymond, spoke to several members of the media prior to the launch, praising the knowledge acquired from X-37B.
“One of the things that we’ve learned is the value of re-usability, and I think as a Space Force there are a couple of things that we’re really going to value and re-usability is one of those and autonomy is another one.”
The launch was dedicated to America’s first responders and essential workers as well as those affected by the global coronavirus pandemic. A message including the words “America Strong” was written on the rocket’s payload fairing.
The Space Force posted a live video stream of just a portion of the launch. The video showed the Atlas V firing and then lifting off the launch pad, it also showed the separation of the rocket’s first stage.
However, due to the secrecy of the X-37B program, the live stream was quickly cut off after the first stage separation, United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Chief Executive Officer, Tory Bruno, said.
“It’s a classified mission, and what is classified about it [is] the details of the vehicle itself, the mission it will do on [sic] orbit, and where it will do that,” Bruno added. “Therefore we have to stop the live broadcast so that we do not make it easy for adversaries to figure those things out by having that much data about the flight and deployment.”
The exact capabilities of the X-37B are unknown. Many defense analysts believe it may possess counter-space or counter-satellite offensive capability. It is thought to be highly maneuverable, which will make it harder for adversaries to track.
Last summer, in an interview with Military.com, former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said that the X-37B, “can do an orbit that looks like an egg and when it’s close to the Earth, it’s close enough to the atmosphere to turn where it is.”
“Which means our adversaries don’t know — and that happens on the far side of the Earth from our adversaries — where it’s going to come up next. And we know that that drives them nuts. And I’m really glad about that,” the Secretary added.