SpaceX Will Launch Next Secret X-37B Mission for US Air Force

X-37B After Landing, May 2017
The U.S. Air Force's robotic X-37B space plane on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at NASA's Kennedy Space Center after a May 7, 2017, landing that ended a 718-day mission. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The Air Force is preparing to launch its secret X-37B space plane aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later this year, the service said yesterday (June 6).

It will be the first time Elon Musk’s company will carry the robotic X-37B into orbit, and is possibly the biggest national security launch SpaceX has been responsible for to date.

The X-37B “will be going up again on top of a SpaceX launcher in August,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, showing members a small model of the space plane. [The Mysterious X-37B Space Plane: 6 Surprising Facts]

This will be the fifth launch of the X-37B, which is also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle. Wilson didn’t disclose why the Air Force selected SpaceX over United Launch Alliance, who launched the first four X-37B missions aboard Atlas V rockets. However, she emphasized in her testimony the growing capabilities of the commercial space industry in general.

"There’s some very exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price," Wilson said.

Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a press release that "the ability to launch the Orbital Test Vehicle on multiple platforms will ensure a robust launch capability for our experiment designers. We are excited about this new partnership on creating flexible and responsive launch options and are confident in SpaceX’s ability to provide safe and assured access to space for the X-37B program."

The X-37B vehicle returned from its fourth mission on May 7, landing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida after 718 days in orbit.

There are actually two Boeing-built X-37B spacecraft. The Air Force has not indicated which one will be launching aboard the SpaceX rocket. However, the fact that the service has been alternating missions between the two craft, and that the second X-37B was the one that landed in May, means that it’s likely the first X-37B is due up for the next mission.

The Air Force said it intends to continue building "upon its fourth mission collaboration with experiment partners. The mission will carry the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-11) to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes in the long duration space environment."

The X-37B is a secret Air Force program, with the first space plane launching on April 22, 2010 and spending roughly 224 days in orbit. The Air Force said that all together, the four missions have spent a total of 2,085 days in space.

Reporter Jeff Foust contributed to this story. This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Phillip Swarts
Contributing Writer

Phillip Swarts covered the military, national security and government contracting in space for Space News from 2016 to 2017. A master's graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Swarts's work can also be found at The Washington Times and Air Force Times. More recently, he has worked as a teacher for the Arlington Public School District.