The US Air Force’s mysterious, unmanned spacecraft known as X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) is set for launch again this week, but this time around, the space plane will take flight via Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket; a first for the OTV.
Built by Boeing, the X-37B launches vertically strapped to a rocket but then lands like a traditional plane; in a similar way that the original reusable Space Shuttle used to do.
The covert space plane is due to take off on 7 September and is set to carry out “experimental operations.” Although much remains classified about the launch, the American Air Force was noted as saying that this mission will carry “the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-II) payload to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long-duration space environment.”
This will be the fifth mission for the X-37B and its duration is also unknown. Past missions have seen the craft spend up to 718 days in orbit. However, for this launch the OTV is expected to be “launched into, and landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelope,” the Air Force said in a release and reported on by PressTV.
Past launches have taken place with the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., via its Atlas V rockets. Now the OTV will hitch a lift on a Falcon 9 rocket, showing that SpaceX is surpassing its private space company roots to multitask as a military launch provider too - a contract that is no doubt a big deal and a very profitable one for this advancing organisation.