A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket stands on the launch pad Dec. 11 ahead of an attempt to lift off the U.S. military's X-37B space plane. The company later delayed the launch.
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SpaceX's hulking Falcon Heavy rocket took to the skies again Thursday evening, this time launching a mysterious spacecraft for the U.S. military to carry out cutting-edge research.
The rocket lifted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:07 p.m. ET, carrying the Army's X-37B space plane. The launch was broadcast live SpaceX's website. The side boosters returned to Earth and touched down safely.
However, it is not clear where the spacecraft is headed.
The X-37B's activities in space have long been the subject of fascination and speculation in the space community, with amateur enthusiasts racing to track its whereabouts and share theories about its activities.
NASA is known to be researching concepts such as the reusable and fully autonomous X-37B, which resembles a small NASA space shuttle with blacked-out windows. Sends solar energy from space to be reused on Earth and studying the effects of radiation on seeds used to grow food.
The mission — the seventh space flight for the X-37B — promises to be even more intriguing than previous flights.
Staff Sgt. Adam Shanks/US Space Force
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle completes its sixth successful mission in 2022.
The launch marked the first ride aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Most powerful operational rockets In this world.
Earlier, the X-37B was launched on the SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle and Atlas V rocket developed by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Falcon Heavy produces more thrust than either of these rockets.
Launching via the Falcon Heavy could indicate that the X-37B is aiming for even more distant orbits, perhaps even the Moon or Mars, suggested Paul Graziani, CEO of COMSPOC, an organization dedicated to observing objects in space.
If it travels much deeper into space than previous flights, it will be more difficult for sky watchers on Earth to determine where the vehicle is.
If the military doesn't want the X-37B to be seen by the public, it can hide the vehicle from the sun or in a number of other ways — including changing its position frequently. The X-37B has already demonstrated in previous flights that it is capable of performing multiple maneuvers in space.
COMSPOC will attempt to search for the vehicle if the spacecraft enters a geosynchronous orbit 22,400 miles (36,000 kilometers) from Earth. A geosynchronous orbit means the agency will centralize sensors for tracking satellites, said Graziani and Bob Hall, COMSPOC's director of operations coordination.
“It's one of the most interesting things that's happened in space in a long time and what it's going to do,” Graziani said of the X-37B launch.
X-37B, Chief of Space Operations General B. According to Chance Saltzman, it helps the U.S. conduct experiments to understand how to improve ongoing and upcoming space operations and push the boundaries of what's possible.
Among the researches on board is a NASA experiment aimed at finding ways to sustain astronauts on future deep space missions. Called SEEDS-2, it will “expose plant seeds to the harsh radiation environment of long-duration spaceflight” and build on research carried out on previous X-37B missions.
For astronauts on long journeys to the Moon or beyond, learning how to grow food in the harsh, soilless environment of space is critical to places where fresh supplies are more difficult.
Although each X-37B flight has historically been longer than the last, it is unclear how much time the spacecraft will spend in this orbit.
The last trip to space for the autonomous X-37B ended in November 2022, after the spacecraft had been in space for 909 consecutive days. During that sixth mission, as CNN previously reported, the space shuttle carried experimental technology designed by the U.S. Navy to convert solar energy. Send it back to the groundAccording to the military.
The X-37B has already spent more than 3,700 days in space on other non-mission missions. When it returns to Earth, it lands on the runway like an airplane descending from the sky.
This launch came on top of that Two weeks Delays. SpaceX was ready to launch on December 10. The launch was halted twice before SpaceX delayed the mission indefinitely to “perform additional system checkouts” due to weather and problems with the ground pad.
But during the downtime, China – this is what the US government considers Chief competitor In a modern space race – sent its own secret spacecraft into orbit.
Not much is known about the spacecraft from China. Although no official photos of the vehicle have been released, some in the industry speculate that it is a doppelganger of the X-37B in form and function.
China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported The secret spacecraft was launched on a Long March 2F rocket.
While in space, the vehicle will test reusable space technology and conduct unspecified scientific experiments “for the peaceful use of space,” the agency's post added.
It is unclear how long China's space plane will spend in orbit.