Andrew Norman/TechTimes.com/Elon Musk-owned SpaceX bagged the contract to launch the mysterious unmanned X-37B space plane — also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle or OTV — which the U.S. Air Force owns.
Until now, the United Launch Alliance monopolized any U.S. military launches. For the unfamiliar, ULA is Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp’s joint venture.
This would be the first time a company not associated with the ULA will be conducting the OTV’s launch. The Boeing-built X-37B space plane has made four trips into the orbit and launched atop ULA’s Atlas V rocket each time.
SpaceX To Launch X-37B Space Plane
On Tuesday, June 6, U.S. Air Force secretary Heather Wilson announced the deal with SpaceX.
“SpaceX will be sending the next Air Force payload up into space in August,” Wilson shared before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
It was only later that Wilson revealed that the payload comprised one of the X-37B space planes. The U.S. Air Force did not share when it awarded the contract to SpaceX.
SpaceX will launch the X-37B space plane in two months from now. The X-37B finished its latest mission and returned to Earth a month ago after spending almost two years in the space.
The deal’s financial terms were not revealed as the X-37B space plane program is the U.S. military’s confidential venture. SpaceX declined to comment on the details as well. However, getting the deal was not an easy task as SpaceX had to strive to break ULA’s monopoly and get the profitable military contract.
The struggle started in 2014 when the Musk-owned company sued government and alleged that the U.S. Air Force was not giving SpaceX a fair chance while handing out contracts.
Once the lawsuit was settled, SpaceX completed its first mission with the U.S. Air Force in 2015. The company also signed a $82.7 million deal with the U.S. Air Force to lift off two of its GPS satellites into the Earth’s orbit in 2018.
U.S. Air Force’s X-37B: The Reusable Space Plane
The X-37B built by Boeing is a reusable space plane, which resembles a mini space shuttle. The mysterious X-37B is unmanned and launches atop a rocket and returns to Earth by landing horizontally on the runway. Till date, the unmanned X-37B has completed four covert space missions carrying payload into the Earth’s orbit.
“The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth,” the X-37B fact sheet explains.
Not much is known about the X-37B and the missions it undertakes. The space plane can autonomously re-enter the atmosphere after getting ground commands. The OTV has a 270-day orbit time and is the first-ever vehicle after the Shuttle Orbiter, which has the capability to bring back experiments that can be delved into further.
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