CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The U.S. Space Force’s uncrewed X-37B space shuttle lifted off into the skies over America’s Space Coast on Sunday to begin military science research in space.
This sixth flight of the X-37B program is the first under the management of the Space Force. As the previous five flights under the Air Force were top secret, several payloads have been announced for this mission.
Based at the Kennedy Space Center, there are two Orbital Test Vehicles in service. They are serviced in a building once used to prepare NASA’s space shuttle fleet for flight. The X-37-B is 25:100 scale compared to NASA’s orbiters.
The last X-37B broke the program’s space duration record in October 2019 after spending 780 day in low Earth orbit. Combined, the two spacecraft have logged seven years and 10 months in space, and nearly one billion miles traveled.
Launch and the Mission Ahead
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 501 thundered away from Cape Canaveral AFS at 9:14:00 a.m. EDT, on Sunday. The rocket’s 860,200 pounds of thrust pushed the second X-37B craft toward space beginning its third flight.
The Atlas V began its trek northwest out over the Atlantic waters. Five minutes into the flight, the two payload fairing halves separated exposing the X-37B to space.
“This launch is a prime example of integrated operations between the Air Force, Space Force, and government-industry partnerships,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein stated on Thursday. “The X-37B continues to break barriers in advancing reusable space vehicle technologies and is a significant investment in advancing future space capabilities.”
The two spacecraft are owned by the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Space Force is in charge of the launch, on-orbit operations, and landing.
“This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program,” Randy Walden, Director and Program Executive Officer for the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said on Friday. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments.”
The addition of a service module will allow the space plane to include more research experiments. A satellite deployment is scheduled later in the flight.
The winged spacecraft will likely stay aloft for over one year, and may break the last mission’s endurance record. At the flight’s conclusion, the X-37B will return home and land at the Kennedy Space Center.
ULA dedicated Sunday’s launch to healthcare professionals, first responders, and the military working across the frontlines of COVID-19. “We join the U.S. Air and Space Forces in honoring those affected by the virus,” the commercial space company added.
(Charles A. Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)