What Did the U.S. Just Put in Orbit?

We attempt to solve that mystery and a few others in this week’s Future of FLYING newsletter.

Space Force spacecraft

The U.S. Space Force’s X-37B spaceplane lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on December 28, 2023. [Courtesy: U.S. Space Force]

Hello, and welcome to the Future of FLYING newsletter, our weekly look at the biggest stories in emerging aviation technology. From low-altitude drones to high-flying rockets at the edge of the atmosphere, we’ll take you on a tour of the modern flying world to help you make sense of it all.

Now for this week’s top story:

The U.S. Government Launched a Secret Robot Spaceplane

(Courtesy: U.S. Space Force)

What happened? Well…we don’t quite know. Last week, the U.S. Space Force sent a mysterious spaceplane called X-37B on its seventh mission. The Boeing-built orbital test vehicle’s (OTV) purpose, payload, and final destination are all unknown. But this launch used a powerful SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, fueling speculation it could be headed for deep orbit.

What we know: Boeing’s Phantom Works, notable for cutting-edge designs such as the A160 Hummingbird, has been developing X-37B for decades. The manufacturer says the reusable design—which resembles a school bus-sized NASA space shuttle—is built to fly in low Earth orbit (LEO) using technologies never before seen in spaceflight, such as automated de-orbiting.

Government agencies have been tight-lipped about the objectives of X-37B, which can evade detection using techniques, such as “hiding” in the sun’s glare. Speculation on its purpose has ranged from spying technology to a weapons delivery system. The government has denied the latter, saying only that it will conduct tests and prepare the U.S. for future space activity.

To infinity and beyond? X-37B won’t travel the galaxy, but some observers think it could reach the moon. That’s because the seventh launch was the spaceplane’s first aboard Falcon Heavy, one of the world’s most powerful launch vehicles. Its first five missions flew on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rockets, and its sixth on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster.

Those journeys were constrained to below 1,200 miles in altitude. But Falcon Heavy can reach 22,000 miles, leading some to believe X-37B will at minimum head to deep orbit. Each of the spaceplane’s missions has been longer than its last, with the most recent jaunt spanning a record 908 days. If that’s any indication, the seventh mission could last years.

Quick quote: “The X-37B government and Boeing teams have worked together to produce a more responsive, flexible, and adaptive experimentation platform. The work they’ve done to streamline processes and adapt evolving technologies will help our nation learn a tremendous amount about operating in and returning from a space environment,” said William Bailey, director of the U.S. Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.

My take: Exactly what the Space Force is up to is anyone’s guess. But it may be worth keeping an eye on, considering China is working on a similar project that also launched this month.

General B. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations for the Space Force, has hinted X-37B’s seventh launch could be its last. China, however, is just ramping up its Shenlong “Divine Dragon” project, which in December set out on its third mission since 2020. There are no photos of the secretive spacecraft, but it’s thought to resemble the X-37B. A few weeks ago, it reportedly deployed six mysterious objects into orbit.

Some, including Saltzman, have implied the initiatives are similar because of the timing of the two launches. If not for delays, X-37B would have launched three days before Shenlong. Perhaps that planned date was not a coincidence.

In Other News…

Rocket Lab Signs $515 Million Satellite Contract with Mystery Government Agency

(Courtesy: Rocket Lab)

What happened? Thought one mystery was enough? How about another? Rocket Lab, which trailed only SpaceX in launches this past year, will design, manufacture, deliver, and operate 18 “space vehicles” for an unnamed U.S. government agency, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. The deal—which could extend as far as 2033—calls for deliveries and operations to begin in 2027.

Case cracked? Several reports speculate that Rocket Lab’s mystery customer is the Space Development Agency (SDA), a unit within the Space Force. In particular, comments from SDA director Derek Tournear regarding the agency’s need for 18 additional satellites have been linked to Rocket Lab’s contract, which calls for that same figure.

Tournear’s words are by no means conclusive evidence, but Rocket Lab and SDA have collaborated on satellite systems in the past. Subtly, the company’s Space Systems unit—which produces satellite components, such as radios and solar panels—has actually outperformed its launch business in recent months, adding to the appeal of a potential SDA partnership.

Alphabet Drone Delivery Arm Wing Adds Second Texas Walmart Location

(Courtesy: Wing)

What happened? Wing, the largest consumer drone delivery provider in the world by deliveries made, expanded its presence in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by adding a Walmart Supercenter in the suburb of Lewisville to its network. It’s the second Walmart store the company has modified for services in the region, following an inaugural site in Frisco that launched in September.

Everything’s bigger in Texas: If the old adage holds true, that includes Wing’s delivery network. By now, a handful of DFW residents are familiar with the service, whether they’ve used it themselves or watched the buzzing aircraft fly overhead. But with the addition of a second Walmart site, the company says it can now serve 60,000 people.

To see Wing’s service in action for yourself, check out our on-site coverage earlier this year. But for those in a time crunch, the gist is that the drones load orders, fly as far as 6 miles, and deliver within 30 minutes—entirely on their own. Flights are monitored remotely from hundreds of miles away, and on-site staff essentially have one job: place payloads beneath the drones.

And a Few More Headlines:

  • Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft manufacturer Horizon Aircraft expects to go public in the coming weeks.
  • Another eVTOL manufacturer, Hyundai’s Supernal, plans to unveil its latest design at CES 2024 next week.
  • Russian forces launched a “record” number of drones at Ukraine in the early hours of the new year.
  • The U.S. Navy is soliciting proposals for systems to counter “cross-domain” drone attacks.
  • FBO operator Jet Aviation partnered with World Fuel Services to sell SAF out of two more sites.

On the Horizon…

In lieu of the typical weekly roundup of modern flying developments, let’s ring in the new year with a few predictions for 2024.

American-made drones will have a banner year. On the defense side of things, U.S. manufacturers should benefit from the recently approved spending bill, which includes language that would ban the purchase or use of drones made in China—and other nations considered hostile to U.S. interests—at the federal level. Considering Chinese DJI drones are near-ubiquitous in government agencies, American companies could get a lift.

U.S. drone delivery firms are also poised for a big year as the FAA introduces beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) summary grants. Wing and Amazon Prime Air have already won the approvals, which are streamlined authorizations based on four waivers the regulator awarded last year. The looming enforcement of remote ID rules and BVLOS provisions contained in the pending FAA reauthorization bill will only add fuel to the industry’s fire.

The FAA reauthorization bill also places emphasis on U.S. leadership of advanced air mobility (AAM) services, such as air taxi routes to and from airports. The first batch of personal eVTOL designs could arrive next year, with companies such as Jetson and Pivotal planning to open sales. Outside the U.S., eVTOL air taxis from Volocopter and EHang are expected to begin flying paying customers.

SMG Consulting, which releases a monthly ranking of AAM manufacturers in its AAM Reality Index, also has a few predictions for the industry. Among other forecasts, the firm expects Joby to begin for-credit flight testing, the FAA and European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to finalize eVTOL regulations, and the first certified vertiport to open for cargo operations. It also predicts a top 10 AAM manufacturer will be snapped up by a legacy aerospace firm.

Mark Your Calendars

Each week, I’ll be running through a list of upcoming industry events. The FAA Drone Symposium and Advanced Air Mobility Summit wrapped up Thursday in Baltimore, but here are a few conferences to keep an eye on:

Tweet of the Week

Want to see your tweet here next week? Have comments or feedback? Share your thoughts on X (formerly Twitter) and tag me (@jack_daleo)! Or check out FLYING’s media accounts:

I want to hear your questions, comments, concerns, and criticisms about everything in the modern flying space, whether they’re about a new drone you just bought or the future of space exploration. Reach out to jack@flying.media or tweet me @jack_daleo with your thoughts.

Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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