Rocket launches seem to have become a bit mundane for many these days yet the odd launch captures peoples imagination. One such launch took place on 29th December when a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carried an uncrewed and autonomous craft into orbit. The configuration of the Falcon Heavy was such that the boosters landed safetly but the central booster was setup as expendable to carry the plane to its heighest altitude yet but its mission remains a mystery.
The Falcon Heavy lifted off from NASA’ Kennedy Space Centre on Friday morning at 01:07 GMT, its payload, the US military X-37B space plane. It resembles a space shuttle but with one rather obvious visual difference, there are no windows. This space plane was never designed to carry passengers indeed it is entirely automated.
Besides its strange appearance, the X-37B’s missions have been shrouded in mystery with much speculation about its activities. Previous flights have seen research into collecting solar energy from space and relaying it to Earth and studying how radiation effects seeds to inform future space travel logistics.
This latest mission looks to be even more intriguing due to the use of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful of all rockets. With its extra lift capability there is even speculation that the space plane might be destined for the Moon or maybe even Mars. Unfortunately with the higher altitude destination it is going to be more difficult for sky watchers like the team at COMSPOC who track space objects to determine what its up to.
Regardless of its purpose, X-37B gives the US the opportunity to test space operations to inform future missions. One such test enables NASA to develop ways to sustain astronauts on long duration deep space trips. If humans are ever to conquer deep space, even long term planetary exploration then we must learn how to grow food successfully in the soilless environment of space. Called ‘Seeds-2’, seeds will be exposed to the radiation and harsh environment of long term space flight.
Just how long this latest mission will last or what altitude it is destined for is unknown but one thing is for sure, whatever it is up to, some exciting developments in space exploration can be expected.