X-37B Space Plane Launches, Its Mission Mysterious

It isn't scheduled to return to the ground for a long time

Space plane
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) stands ready on May 15, 2020.
Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Built by Boeing, powered by the sun and operating without a crew, the X-37B is a vessel designed to operate hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth, often for lengthy periods of time. This week saw the latest launch of such a vessel, a journey that began at Kennedy Space Center and saw the plane sent into space on a SpaceX Heavy Falcon rocket.

As the Associated Press’s Marcia Dunn reports, the launch was delayed by several weeks. In the larger picture, however, that might not matter too much: the X-37B is scheduled to be on its mission for several years. As for that that mission is, however, well — that’s classified. It’s the seventh mission overall for the X-37B.

“The [X-37B] continues to equip the United States with the knowledge to enhance current and future space operations,” said Space Force’s Chief of Space Operations, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, in a statement earlier this month. “X-37B Mission 7 demonstrates the USSF’s commitment to innovation and defining the art-of-the-possible in the space domain.”

The U.S. Space Force did provide some details on what would be tested on the mission, including measuring radiation levels — an area of increasing concern for space experts — and “experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies.”

Space domain awareness is an emerging technological area which focuses on the monitoring of, as a 2022 SpaceNews article phrased it, “shadowy threats in orbit.” With Earth’s orbit getting increasingly crowded, it’s not hard to see why this technology will be important both now and in the future.

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The lengthy duration of this mission is nothing new for the X-37B. As Mike Wall explained in a 2021 Space.com article, several of its missions have been well in excess of a year in length. That article quotes Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College and author of a book on space warfare, who called the X-37B “a technology testbed.” Given the clandestine nature of this mission, however, just what is being tested may be a mystery for most of us.

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