The U.S. Space Force has announced a delay in the upcoming launch of its elusive X-37B space plane. The mission, designated USSF-52, was scheduled for Dec. 7, but has now been pushed back to Dec. 10.
X-37B will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, from NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC), in Florida. Shifting launch schedules and availability at Launch Complex-39A (LC-39A) were cited for the date change, according to a Space Force statement.
"We partner closely with our launch service providers, and the entire team is focused on executing a successful mission,” said Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, of Space Launch Delta 45, in a Space Systems Command (SSC) email.
The Dec. 10 liftoff of USSF-52 will take place from KSC's LC-39A, during an unspecified launch window. According to the SSC email, those details will be released "as the launch date approaches."
This will be the reusable space plane's first launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket, which has implications for its secretive mission. Five of X-37B's six previous launches were carried out using United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets; the single remainder flew on a Falcon 9.
Falcon Heavy, which combines three Falcon 9 boosters for the rocket's first stage, can carry heavier payloads into higher orbits than both Atlas V and Falcon 9, and will possibly be launching X-37B farther into space than it has ever flown. Though little is known about the spacecraft's operational capabilities, some of USSF-52’s mission objectives include X-37B "operating in new orbital regimes," the Space Force release indicated.
One unclassified experiment flying as part of USSF-52 is NASA's "Seeds-2," which will test the radiation effects of long-duration spaceflight on plant seeds. Other mission objectives, according to the Space Force, include,"experimenting with space domain awareness technologies."
A photo shared with that release shows X-37B, now sporting the Space Force's logo for the first time, standing alongside one of its payload fairings, prior to being encapsulated.
Though this is Falcon Heavy’s first jaunt with X-37B, it's not the rocket’s first launch for the Space Force, which has approved SpaceX to fly national security payloads using refurbished stages. The side boosters launching USSF-52 have each flown four previous missions, including two Space Force launches in November 2022, and January 2023, as well as launching the Hughes JUPITER 3 communications satellite and NASA's Psyche probe earlier this year.