X-37B: Questions About the New Mission of the Mysterious Spaceplane Launched by a Falcon Heavy

Artist's view of the atmospheric re-entry of the U.S. Space Force X-37B. Nasa, Marshall Space Center

For its seventh mission, the mysterious X-37B of the United States Space Force used a SpaceX Falcon Heavy to reach space. The choice of such a powerful launcher may be surprising. However, for the commencement of its mission, this spacecraft will not confine itself to low Earth orbit. It must reach geostationary orbit, raising questions about the true nature of the X-37B.

Early this morning, French time, a Falcon Heavy successfully launched the X-37B spacecraft of the United States Space Force, or rather the small “drone-ized” space shuttle, for its seventh mission (OTV-7), which is certainly not done making headlines!

In the six previous missions, the X-37B used less powerful launchers to reach space (SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and ULA’s Atlas V in the first five missions). However, for this seventh mission, the X-37B launched the vehicle on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, a launcher that is significantly more powerful than the two it previously used. The Falcon 9 would have sufficed for low Earth orbit, but the U.S. Air Force opted for a more powerful launcher, allowing the vehicle to “operate in new orbital regimes,” according to a U.S. Air Force spokesperson. Specifically, the X-37B is in flight on a geostationary orbit, reigniting questions about the true nature of this apparatus.

Also: The X-37B Prepares for a New Space Mission of Questionable Duration

A Groundbreaking Mission in Geostationary Orbit

It is important to note that the United States Space Force generally does not disclose the classified aspects of X-37B missions. Few details are available about the activities this vehicle will undertake in orbit or its permanent location. However, the U.S. Air Force has consistently stated that X-37B missions “are essential to ensuring safe and responsible space operations for all users of the space domain.”

This seventh mission marks a turning point in the operational career of the vehicle, with an unknown mission duration and many questions about the orbits and altitudes it will use throughout its mission.

Since its commissioning over ten years ago in 2010, with a total of over 3,770 days in orbit, the X-37B has always sparked curiosity within the space community. It was believed to be, according to program officials, a remarkable vehicle for orbital tests and demonstrations. However, this mission in geostationary orbit, at 36,000 kilometers altitude, raises numerous questions, as it should be emphasized that no scientific experiment or demonstration of new, even highly experimental, technologies requires going so far from Earth.

Militarization of X-37B Activities

The X-37B returns to Earth in November 2022, after its sixth mission of 908 days in orbit © Boeing, US Space Force
The X-37B returns to Earth in November 2022, after its sixth mission of 908 days in orbit © Boeing, US Space Force.

This vehicle could be used to test, simulate, or initiate various advanced surveillance, protection, or even defensive or offensive military activities, such as neutralizing enemy satellites or moving foreign satellites away from American satellites; the latter two activities are obviously being simulated! One could also consider, quite feasibly, maintenance activities, whether simulated or operational, on active American satellites, or perhaps testing the capabilities of the X-37B’s robotic arm on decommissioned satellites located in a graveyard orbit slightly higher than geostationary orbit.