Thursday 9 November 2023

Boldly going where no spaceplane has gone before? New X-37B mission OTV 7 to launch in December

X-37B OTV 6 after landing in November 2022 (image: US Air Force)

The US Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office has announced that the 7th mission (OTV 7) of its robotic X-37B Spaceplane will launch, as USSF-52, on 7 December 2023.

The launch will be done from Kennedy Space Center in Florida by SpaceX, using a Falcon Heavy. That is interesting, as it is a surprisingly heavy rocket for this launch: SpaceX has launched an X-37B mission before (OTV 5 in 2017) but using a more modest 'normal' Falcon 9 at that time. So why a Falcon Heavy this time?


X-37B OTV 5 pass photographed by the author on 21 April 2018. Click image to enlarge

In the Air Force announcement, it is stated that the upcoming OTV 7 mission will be "operating the reusable spaceplane in new orbital regimes". That is an interesting phrase in combination with the unusually heavy launch vehicle chosen.

It might imply that this mission will go to a much higher orbit. Indeed, this article in Ars Technica mentions a 5-year-old procurement document which mentions a 27-degree inclined,  35188 x185 km  GTO reference orbit, perhaps implying a mission to GEO (!) or maybe into a Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO). That would certainly be 'boldly going where no spaceplane has gone before'! If they would launch to GEO and then bring it back, that certainly would be no mean feat.

This will be an interesting mission to track. We will know more when, early December probably, the Navigational Warnings for the launch appear, as these might provide some clues as to the orbit launched into.

Note added 3 December 2023:

The Air Force announcement mentions that the OTV 7 mission includes "experimenting with space domain awareness technologies". I wonder whether, if it is going to geosynchronous orbit, it will test the Silent Barker satellites (launched last September) by functioning as a mock-target.

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