SpaceX has landed the contract to launch the Air Force's super-secret X-37B space plane back in orbit. The launch should happen later this year. SpaceX was competing against United Launch Alliance (ULA) for the contract.
The X-37B is a reusable, experimental spacecraft made by Boeing for the Air Force. Most recently, it returned to Earth in May after spending 718 in orbit doing some sort of secret something or other. Seriously, we have no idea what it's mission was. The X-37B has flown three prior mission for 224, 469, and 674 days, respectively. The SpaceX launch of it later this year will be it's 5th.
This time around, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), which runs the X-37B program is giving us a little information on the payload. They say that special electronics and heat pipes will be tested to see how they operate during extending space flights. Heat pipes ... sure, whatever you say.
If you aren't familiar with the RCO, this is the mission statement from their website:
The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office expedites development and fielding of select Department of Defense combat support and weapon systems by leveraging defense-wide technology development efforts and existing operational capabilities. The Board of Directors tasks the office directly to address needs that involve mission applications and operational concepts requiring specialized expertise, and involve sensitive activities managed by other government agencies. The office also conducts projects on accelerated timelines.
So, "heat pipes" are space lasers, right?
More importantly, SpaceX won the contract over ULA, who had been responsible for U.S. military launches in recent years. In May, SpaceX launched a top-secret satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, marking the first time they dipped their toe into the "top secret" pool. The contract for that launch had been in place for several years but wasn't publicly for some time. Since then, SpaceX has been awarded contracts for a few more government and military launches.
It's not known when SpaceX was awarded the contract for the X-37b launch. Most likely, the deal has been in place for some time. One factor leading to SpaceX starting to launch for the military and government is cost. It's understood that SpaceX charges considerably less than ULA per launch, and with the company now reusing rocket bodies, the cost will have come down even more.
The X-37B launch is planned for sometime in August. How long it will spend in space this time is not known.