SpaceX will launch the Air Force’s X-37B experimental spaceplane later this year, in the military’s latest vote of confidence in the Elon Musk-led space company.
This will be the first time SpaceX has launched the uncrewed robotic vehicle. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., has launched the spaceplane’s previous four missions atop one of its Atlas V rockets.
The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which is responsible for the X-37B’s experimental operations, said it was “very excited” for the fifth flight, which will test how special electronics and heat pipes will fare during a long-duration space mission.
“We look forward to continued expansion of the vehicle’s performance and are excited to continue hosting experimental payloads for the space community,” the office’s director, Randy Walden, said in a statement.
The Air Force did not disclose when SpaceX won the contract.
The Air Force has two of the spaceplanes, which look like miniature versions of the space shuttle and are known officially as X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles. The first X-37B was launched in 2010.
While details of the spaceplane’s missions are scarce, the Air Force could be using the X-37B to test sensors for intelligence gathering from space, according to Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a private organization that researches space security issues.
Experts have also speculated that the spaceplane could be a vehicle for the military to quickly launch small satellites or as an on-orbit repair service for satellites.
SpaceX — which is based in Hawthorne and whose full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — was certified by the Air Force in 2015 to carry national security satellites, which broke up a longtime and lucrative monopoly held by United Launch Alliance. Since then, SpaceX has won two contracts to launch national security satellites for the Air Force.
12:50 p.m.: This article was updated to include industry experts’ opinions about the possible missions for the X-37B.
This article was originally published at 10:50 a.m.