SpaceX has made yet another successful launch in 2023. Falcon Heavy launched the rocket military spaceplane X-37B of the US Space Force to carry out its seventh mission.
Falcon Heavy lifted off on December 28 at 8:07 pm ET from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The USSF-52 mission was SpaceX’s 97th launch this year and Falcon Heavy’s ninth flight ever. The mission was originally scheduled to launch on December 10 but was delayed due to inclement weather and later again due to technical reasons.
According to a SpaceNews report, Falcon Heavy’s side boosters separated less than three minutes after liftoff. The second stage separated approximately four minutes after launch. The side boosters returned to landing zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station about eight minutes after liftoff. This marked SpaceX’s 257th and 258th rocket landings.
This was the first launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a Falcon Heavy rocket. It has previously launched five times on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 and once on SpaceX’s Falcon 9. In June 2018, SpaceX received a $130 million contract to launch USSF-52.
The X-37B is a reusable vehicle that began flying into space in 2010. It launches as a satellite but returns to Earth on its own and lands on runways at either Kennedy Space Center or Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
The target orbit of this mission is classified. Because the X-37B was launched by a Falcon Heavy, space observers speculate that the vehicle is heading to a highly elliptical, high inclination orbit, at a much higher altitude than previous missions. The X-37B is highly maneuverable and can quickly change orbit, making tracking difficult.
The spaceplane will conduct a wide range of tests, including operation in new orbital regimes, experiments with space domain awareness technologies, and a study of radiation effects on materials provided by NASA, the Space Force said.