By Alex Polimeni
A clandestine U.S. Space Force space drone is preparing for its launch in mid-May, amid an uncertain world of social distancing and COVID-19 concerns.
The USSF-7 mission consists of the Pentagon’s X-37B reusable space plane, a covert spacecraft built by Boeing, designed to launch vertically and land autonomously like an airplane.
“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable space plane,” said Secretary of the Air Force, Barbara Barrett, in a release following the most recent X-37B landing. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”
No information regarding X-37B mission parameters or objectives are currently made public by the Air Force. The X-37B has flown five times since its first launch in 2010, according to an Air Force fact sheet.
“Its objectives include space experimentation, risk reduction and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies that could become key enablers for future space missions,” according to a Boeing press release following an X-37B landing in 2014.
The top of the stubby-winged spaceplane has doors that open in orbit, exposing various experiments to the vacuum of space for extended periods of time.
The space plane is known to unexpectedly land after hundreds of days in orbit, often waking nearby residents with ear-piercing sonic booms, resembling the sound of gunshots. The X-37B has landed at both the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on the same runway the Space Shuttle utilized, according to Boeing press releases.
“I woke in the middle of the night to a very loud bang,” said Jeff Seibert, veteran local space journalist for AmericaSpace. “I figured that the soap holder in the shower had fallen onto the floor as had happened before, and I went right back to sleep.”
When Seibert awoke, he thought the bang he heard was a sonic boom. When really it was the space plane, the north end of the shuttle landing facility is only 8.5 miles from his home.
“This program continues to push the envelope as the world’s only reusable space vehicle,” said Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director.
The sixth X-37B mission will launch into the Florida skies in mid-May, on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The Atlas V has been the X-37B’s ride to space for a majority of its history, including its first flight in 2010.
USSF-7 will begin its mission from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the home of Atlas V launch operations. USSF-7 will be the Atlas V’s 84th mission and the 139th United Launch Alliance flight, all with 100 percent mission success.
The launch will be visible throughout the Space Coast; however, due to the unique nature of the pandemic, it is strongly advised that viewers maintain Centers for Disease Control social distancing guidelines. As this Atlas V will be flying with no solid rocket boosters, a plume below the rocket will not be visible.