WASHINGTON — The seventh mission of the reusable U.S. Air Force X-37B spaceplane is scheduled to launch Dec. 7 on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
The spaceplane is built by Boeing and operated by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and the U.S. Space Force. The upcoming mission will be Orbital Test Vehicle 7.
The X-37B will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time.
The mission, designated USSF-52, will conduct a wide range of tests, including operating the reusable spaceplane in new orbital regimes, experimenting with space domain awareness technologies, and investigating the radiation effects on materials provided by NASA, the Space Force said in a statement Nov. 8.
“We are excited to expand the envelope of the reusable X-37B’s capabilities,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, the X-37B program director.
The NASA experiment onboard, known as Seeds-2, will expose plant seeds to the harsh radiation environment of long-duration spaceflight.
SpaceX was awarded a $130 million contract in June 2018 to launch USSF-52. The mission was originally scheduled to launch in 2021 and has been delayed by payload and range availability.
Most recent mission set endurance record
The most recent X-37B mission, OTV-6, launched in May 2020 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, and landed in November 2022 after setting a new endurance record, spending 908 days on orbit.
The X-37B spaceplane is a derivative of the X-37A designed by NASA in the late 1990s to deploy from the Space Shuttle. The program later was transferred to the Defense Department. There are two X-37B spacecraft, which were originally designed for missions of 270 days, but have greatly exceeded that goal since the spaceplane’s first mission in 2010.
The Air Force for a decade kept the X-37B in a cloak of secrecy, but the Space Force is now showcasing it.