US Military Launches Spaceplane for Secret Mission

( – The US military’s X-37B spaceplane has embarked on its 7th covert mission, being launched into space by the SpaceX “heavy” rocket. Unlike previous missions, this launch was the first to use the powerful Falcon Heavy, which is made of 3 clustered rocket cores. The lift off was from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral after multiple technical issues and delays because of bad weather.

Resembling a scaled-down space shuttle, the unmanned X-37B serves as a platform for unknown experiments, apparently having a big role in the US Space Force’s national security space launch program. The mission’s objectives remain shrouded in secrecy, but a statement from the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office indicated a focus on testing new orbital capabilities and space domain awareness technologies.

The spaceplane also carries a NASA-sponsored experimental detector to investigate the effects of long-term radiation exposure on plant seeds, a mission with implications for sustaining astronauts on extended missions to local celestial bodies like the Moon and Mars.

The timing of the X-37B’s launch is interesting as China launched its own mission of its robotic spaceplane, Shenlong or “Divine Dragon,” intensifying the space rivalry between the US and China. While Shenlong’s capabilities are believed to be confined to low-Earth orbit, its launch almost concurrently with the X-37B suggests a competitive dynamic in space operations.

General Chance Saltzman of the US Space Force acknowledged the mutual interest between the US and China in each other’s space capabilities, emphasizing the controversy both spaceplanes attract from each other while in orbit. Saltzman’s remarks hint that it was a coordinated effort by China to align the timing of Shenlong’s launch with the X-37B’s mission.

Manufactured by Boeing, the X-37B measures 29 feet in length, which is very small compared to early NASA shuttles. Unlike conventional spacecraft, it has an autonomous landing system and is designed for vertical takeoff and horizontal landing, offering flexibility in orbital altitude of hundreds of miles above the earth.

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