GEOINT: In news sure to rock the launch industry, the mighty United Launch Alliance today failed to be named as the company launching the X-37B spaceplane. Instead, Elon Musk’s SpaceX will carry it for the first time, marking what is believed to be the company’s heaviest national security launch to date.
The Air Force announced this evening — after the markets closed — that SpaceX would carry Boeing’s X-37B spaceplane into orbit “later this year.”
As close watchers of the X-37B know, its missions are highly classified. No one without a high clearance knows exactly what it does all alone up there whizzing around the planet for months and months(but click here for our speculations). Knowing the likely launch window well in advance might convey important information to someone trying to evade it.
However, my colleague Phillip Swart of Space News quotes Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson as telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the launch will occur in August — but still no target date.
The X-37B is run by the service’s Rapid Capabilities Office. Randy Walden, its director, said they were “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.”
It’s unclear from today’s announcement if SpaceX won a competition against ULA for the launch or if, for some reason, the Air Force simply decided to use SpaceX instead of the ULA Atlas V, which as carried every other X-37 mission into orbit.
The spaceplane will be boosted into space by a Falcon 9 Upgrade. In addition to the X-37B, it will carry aloft an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) experiment. Known as the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-11), it will “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes in the long duration space environment,” Walden said in his statement.