WASHINGTON — The X-37B is heading back to space later this year, and this time the space plane will launch for the first time ever by a SpaceX Falcon 9, the Air Force announced late Tuesday.
The fifth mission of the X-37B, sometimes referred to as the orbital test vehicle, involves carrying the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-11) created by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the service stated in a news release.
Although the Air Force gave scant details on the nature of the mission or the capability of the new payload, generally speaking, the X-37 is used to help validate emerging technologies and concepts of operations related to reusable spacecraft. In a statement, it explained the ASETS-11 would "test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes in the long duration space environment."
The service previously stated the launch would take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and the mission will be managed by the Air Force's secretive Rapid Capabilities Office, which is responsible for the B-21 and some of the service's other high-tech development programs.
"We are very excited for the next fifth X-37B mission," RCO director Randy Walden said in a statement. "We look forward to continued expansion of the vehicle's performance and are excited to continue hosting experimental payloads for the space community."
Although the Air Force did not provide an explanation for why SpaceX was chosen to launch the X-37 instead of Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance, Walden stated that "the ability to launch the Orbital Test Vehicle on multiple platforms will ensure a robust launch capability for our experiment designers."
"We are excited about this new partnership on creating flexible and responsive launch options and are confident in SpaceX's ability to provide safe and assured access to space for the X-37B program," he added.
The X-37B, which was built by Boeing, recently wrapped up its fourth mission. Over a period of 718 days, the unmanned space plane conducted on-orbit experiments before returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida on May 7. It has spent 2,085 days in orbit so far.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.