The next US Space Force launch will be the X-37B space plane carrying science experiments


The X-37B sits ready for launch.

US Space Force

On Sunday, the US Space Force marked its second launch since becoming the newest branch of the American military in December, sending the X-37B space plane into orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The autonomous spacecraft lifted off atop an Atlas V rocket at 9:14 a.m. ET, some 24 hours after poor weather conditions forced the launch’s postponement on Saturday.

Barbara Barrett, secretary of the US Air Force, announced the liftoff on her Twitter page, calling the mission “a prime example of government-industry partnerships enhancing National Security Space.”

The uncrewed spacecraft, which looks like a mini space shuttle, has been a secretive Air Force project for years, staying in orbit for up to two years per flight and doing who knows what. But this first X-37B flight under the Space Force comes with a new window into some parts of the mission. 

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Earlier in May, Barrett said the space plane will be deploying a small satellite called FalconSat-8, carrying several experiments on behalf of the Air Force, NASA and US Naval Research Lab. Among other things, the experiments will look at the effects of radiation on seeds and at transforming solar power into radio frequencies that could be transmitted to the Earth’s surface.  

Barrett announced the flight of the X-37B on May 6 during a livestreamed event hosted by the Space Foundation, alongside the Space Force’s Chief of Space Operations, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond. 

“This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments,” Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in an accompanying release

X-37B maker Boeing on May 6 tweeted a short video showing the space plane going through its paces.

The first Space Force launch took place in March, when a national security communications satellite blasted off from Cape Canaveral.

The US Space Force got its first push in an aside by President Trump during a speech in 2018, and it was formally established in December 2019. The first new branch of the US armed forces in decades, Space Force comes under the supervision of the secretary of the Air Force.

The last X-37B mission ended in October when the space plane — there are two of them — landed after 780 days in orbit. In total, over the course of five missions, the two orbital vehicles have spent seven years and 10 months (or 2,865 days) circling Earth.

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