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Business News/ Science / News/  US military's secretive X-37B robot spaceplane launched atop SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket | 5 key facts to know
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US military's secretive X-37B robot spaceplane launched atop SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket | 5 key facts to know

The X-37B US space drone is about the size of a small bus and resembles a miniature space shuttle. Know all about the mission objectives, US-Sino rivalry in space and more.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023. The rocket was carrying the U.S. military's X-37B secret space plane. (AP)Premium
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023. The rocket was carrying the U.S. military's X-37B secret space plane. (AP)

The US military's secretive X-37B robot spaceplane or space drone blasted off into the space from Florida on Thursday night. This is the first time that the X-37B was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. This is X-37B US robot spaceplane's seventh mission.

Following the successful liftoff, SpaceX tweeted, "Falcon Heavy launches USSF-52 to orbit from Florida."

According to AFP, the US released little information about the space drone and its mission, which was initially scheduled for December 7. Meanwhile, SpaceX only cited the Pentagon's mission code name -- USSF-52 -- in its statement on the launch.

 

About X-37B US space drone's shape, size and built

The X-37B US space drone is about the size of a small bus and resembles a miniature space shuttle. It looks like a mini version of the manned space shuttles retired in 2011. On previous missions, the X-37B carried out tests for the NASA on the impact of radiation on seeds and other materials, AFP reported.

In operation since 2010, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle was designed for the Air Force by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. It is 30 feet (nine meters) long, has a 15-foot wingspan and is powered by solar panels.

No astronauts are needed, the X-37B has an autonomous landing system.

Role of X-37B spaceplane in current mission

The X-37B mission is being conducted by the US Space Force under the military's National Security Space Launch program. Built by Boeing, the vehicle is expected to deploy various payloads and conduct technology experiments on years-long orbital flights.

At the end of its mission, the craft descends back through the atmosphere to land on a runway much like an airplane, Reuters reported.

Earlier, the Pentagon had said the X-37B's seventh mission would entail "multiple cutting-edge experiments".

"These tests include operating the reusable spaceplane in new orbital regimes, experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies, and investigating the radiation effects on materials provided by NASA," the US Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office was quoted by AFP as saying in a statement last month.

According to Reuters, the X-37B is also carrying a NASA experiment to study how plant seeds are affected by prolonged exposure to the harsh environment of radiation in space. The ability to cultivate crops in space has major implications for keeping astronauts nourished during future long-term missions to the moon and Mars.

The planned duration of the latest X-37B mission was not made public, but it will presumably run until June 2026 or later, given the prevailing pattern of successively longer flights. Its last mission remained in orbit for well over two years before landing in November 2022.

About 6 previous mission of X-37B

The X-37B has flown six previous missions since 2010. The first five of them were carried to orbit by Atlas V rockets from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and most recently, in May 2020, atop a Falcon 9 booster furnished by Elon Musk's SpaceX.

The X-37B, also called the Orbital Test Vehicle, has previously been confined to flights in low-Earth orbit, at altitudes below 1,200 miles (2,000 km).

'US-Sino rivalry in space'

The X-37B launch came two weeks after China's own robot spaceplane, known as the Shenlong, or "Divine Dragon," was launched on its third mission to orbit since 2020.

This seemingly has added a new twist to the growing US-Sino rivalry in space.

China's equally secretive Shenlong was carried to space on December 14 by a Long March 2F rocket, a launch system less powerful than SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and believed to be limited to delivering payloads to low-Earth orbit.

Still, Space Force General B. Chance Saltzman told reporters at an industry conference earlier this month he expected China to launch Shenlong around the same time as the X-37B flight in what he suggested was a competitive move.

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Published: 29 Dec 2023, 08:06 PM IST
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