First Attempt to Launch USSF-52 Aborted as Falcon Heavy Encounters Issues

As the year 2023 comes to a close, the US Department of Defense’s X-37B spaceplane is gearing up for its next mission, OTV-7, aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. The launch, scheduled for December 12th, has been delayed due to a ground support equipment issue, but both the vehicle and payload are reported to be healthy. With a launch forecast of 75 percent favorable, the primary concern for liftoff is the wind. This mission will mark the 92nd SpaceX Falcon-family orbital flight of 2023 and the fifth SpaceX flight of the month.

The Falcon Heavy, using core vehicle B1084, will initially launch on a northeast trajectory but may perform a dogleg maneuver to a higher inclination orbit. This trajectory adjustment could be related to the disposal of the second stage into the North Pacific. The payload, the X-37B, will be placed in low-Earth orbit but may end up in a higher final orbit as testing in new orbital regimes is one of the objectives of this mission. The X-37B will carry the Seeds-2 experiment by NASA, which will study the long-term effects of radiation on plant seeds. The spaceplane also carries military experiments and payloads and has previously launched small satellites.

The Falcon Heavy boosters, B1064-5 and B1065-5, will return to the launch site for touchdowns on Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) and Landing Zone-2 (LZ-2) concrete pads. The boosters have flown four missions each as Falcon Heavy side boosters, but they may be converted to single-stick Falcon 9 vehicles in the future. The X-37B Vehicle 2, making its fourth flight, will be encapsulated in its fairing before flying aboard the Falcon Heavy. Unlike previous missions, the boosters are being returned, allowing for their reuse. The only parts of the Falcon Heavy stack that will not be reused are the core and second stage.

The X-37B has demonstrated its ability to stay in orbit for extended periods, with one mission lasting nearly three years. The previous mission, OTV-6, landed in November 2022 after 908 days in space. OTV-7, the upcoming mission, may also carry a service module for additional experiments. It is the first competitively won military mission for Falcon Heavy, with SpaceX’s bid winning over ULA’s Delta IV Heavy. After the NROL-70 mission in March, the Delta family will come to an end, and ULA’s Atlas V will complete its remaining manifest.

SpaceX has won multiple bids under Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch contract, with ULA also set to fly Phase 2 missions. Phase 3 of the contract is expected to make awards in 2024, potentially adding a third launch provider for the most demanding military space missions. While Falcon Heavy will have five flights in 2023, the next mission is scheduled for April 2024. SpaceX aims to launch 100 times this calendar year, with a goal of 144 launches in 2024.

To wrap it up, as 2023 comes to an end, the X-37B spaceplane prepares for its next mission aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket. This mission marks another milestone for SpaceX as they continue to break records and secure military contracts. With a busy launch schedule and ambitious goals for the future, SpaceX shows no signs of slowing down in the commercial space industry.