The US military’s mysterious X-37B robotic space plane has blasted off from Florida on its seventh mission, the first to fly atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket capable of delivering it to a higher orbit than ever before.
A boy previous missionsthere is no one aboard the reusable plane, which looks like a mini-spacecraft and carries classified experiments.
The Falcon Heavy, made up of three rocket cores strapped together, took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Space Center at Cape Canaveral more than two weeks late due to technical problems.
Three earlier countdowns were halted due to bad weather and unspecified technical problems, prompting ground crews to roll the spacecraft back to its hangar before continuing Thursday’s flight.
The launch came two weeks after China’s robotic spacecraft, known as the Shenlong, or “Divine Dragon,” was launched on its third mission to orbit since 2020, adding a new twist to the growing U.S.-Sino- rivalry in space.
The Pentagon has released few details about the X-37B mission, which is being conducted by the U.S. Space Force under the military’s National Security Space Launch Program.
Thursday’s launch was the seventh flight of an X-37B, which has logged more than 10 years in orbit since its debut in 2010.
The last flight, the longest yet, lasted two and a half years before ending on a runway at Kennedy a year ago.
The Pentagon did not say how high the space plane will fly this time. But in a statement last month, the Air Force Office of Rapid Capabilities said mission no. 7 will involve tests of “new orbital systems, experimentation with future space domain awareness technologies.”
The X-37B also carries a Nasa experiment to study how plant seeds are affected by prolonged exposure to the harsh environment of radiation in space. The ability to grow crops in space has major implications for keeping astronauts fed during future long-duration missions to the moon and Mars.
China’s equally mysterious Shenlong was carried into space on December 14 by a Long March 2F rocket, a launch system less powerful than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and believed to be limited to delivering payloads to a low-Earth Lane.
Still, Space Force General B Chance Saltzman told reporters at an industry conference earlier this month that he expected China to launch Shenlong at about the same time as the X-37B flight in what he suggested was a competitive move.
“It is no surprise that the Chinese are extremely interested in our space plane. We’re very interested in theirs,” Saltzman said, according to comments published in Air & Space Forces Magazine, a U.S. aerospace journal.
“These are two of the most watched objects in orbit while they are in orbit. It’s probably no coincidence that they’re trying to match us in timing and sequence of this,” he said.
The planned duration of the latest X-37B mission has not been disclosed, but it is believed to last until June 2026 or later, given the prevailing pattern of successively longer flights.
Built by Boeing, the X-37B looks like NASA’s retired space shuttles, but they are only one-fourth the size at 29 feet (9 meters) long. No astronauts are needed; the X-37B has an autonomous landing system.
They take off vertically like rockets, but land horizontally like airplanes, and are designed to orbit between 150 miles and 500 miles (240 kilometers and 800 kilometers) high.
Reuters and AP contributed to this report