SpaceX’s powerful Falcon Heavy rocket soared into the night sky, carrying the US military’s enigmatic X-37B drone on its seventh classified mission.
The liftoff, delayed for weeks, finally occurred on Thursday night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, captivating audiences worldwide through a livestream on SpaceX’s website.
The mission, coded USSF-52 by the Pentagon, remains shrouded in secrecy, with little information disclosed about the destination or specific objectives of the uncrewed, autonomously operated spacecraft.
SpaceX, in its statement, succinctly announced, “Falcon Heavy launched the USSF-52 mission to orbit from Launch Complex 39A.”
The US Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, shedding some light on the X-37B’s mission, revealed it would involve “multiple cutting-edge experiments.”
These experiments encompass operating the reusable spaceplane in new orbital regimes, testing future space domain awareness technologies, and exploring radiation effects on materials supplied by NASA.
Notably, this marks the maiden voyage of the X-37B atop a Falcon Heavy, one of the most potent operational rockets globally, capable of carrying payloads up to 26,700 kilograms (58,900 pounds) deep into space.
Resembling a miniaturized version of the retired manned space shuttles, the X-37B, approximately the size of a small bus, has previously conducted significant tests for NASA, including experiments on radiation’s impact on seeds and other materials.
This Falcon Heavy launch follows closely on the heels of China’s deployment of its secretive robotic space plane, Shenlong, which entered orbit just two weeks prior. While China’s state news agency Xinhua mentioned plans for “reusable technology verification and space science experiments,” the specifics of the mission remain guarded.
Since its inception in 2010, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, designed for the Air Force by United Launch Alliance—a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin—has proven its versatility.
Measuring 30 feet (nine meters) in length, with a 15-foot wingspan and powered by solar panels, the X-37B continues to be a pivotal asset in advancing cutting-edge space capabilities.