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US military spaceplane poised for 7th launch, first atop SpaceX Falcon Heavy

CAPE CANAVERAL — The US military’s secretive X-37B robot spaceplane was poised for liftoff from Florida today on its seventh mission to orbit, the vehicle’s first launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket capable of lofting it higher than ever before.

The Falcon Heavy, composed of three reusable rocket cores strapped together, was due for blast-off from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral during a 10-minute nighttime launch window starting at 8.14pm EST (0114 GMT/9.14am Malaysian time), weather permitting.

Initial plans to send the spacecraft to orbit late on Sunday were scrubbed due to weather. The latest launch forecast called for a 75 per cent chance of favourable conditions on Monday night.

The Defence Department has disclosed few details about the mission, conducted by the US Space Force as part of the National Security Space Launch programme.

The Boeing-built X-37B, roughly the size of a small bus and resembling a miniature space shuttle craft, is built to deploy various payloads and conduct technology experiments in long-duration orbital flights.

It has flown six previous missions since 2010, the first five of them carried to orbit by Atlas V rockets from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and most recently, in May 2020, atop a Falcon 9 booster furnished by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, has spent longer in space with each successive mission, its last flight lasting well over two years before a return landing in November 2022. In the past it has always flown in low-Earth orbit, at altitudes below 1,200 miles (2,000km).

The latest mission was set to be launched for the first time aboard SpaceX’s more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, capable of carrying much heavier payloads far higher, possibly into geosynchronous orbit, more than 22,000 miles (35,000km) above the Earth.

“It seems clear OTV-7 is heading to a higher orbit, probably a highly elliptical orbit” peaking at 12,000 to 22,000 miles (20,000-36,000km) high, Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters by email.

The Pentagon has not disclosed the intended altitude for the spaceplane’s latest mission. But in a press statement last month, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office said the latest mission would involve tests of “new orbital regimes, experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies.”

The X-37B also was carrying a Nasa experiment to examine how plant seeds are affected by long-term exposure to the harsh environment of radiation in space.

The military has not said how long the spaceplane’s latest mission would last, though it presumably will remain in orbit until June 2026 or later if it follows its prevailing trend of successively longer flights.

Space Force General B. Chance Saltzman, now chief of space operations, suggested in 2020 that the X-37B may be nearing its final mission, according to the authoritative aerospace journal Air & Space Forces magazine.

Saltzman was quoted by the monthly magazine as saying at that time that the spacecraft might exemplify “technology that has served its purpose and (maybe) it’s time to start looking at the next available capability.”

The X-37B flight would mark the ninth launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and the third time it was used by US government to carry a national security payload to orbit. — Reuters

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