There’s a lot of secret spacecraft in the sky this month. Last week, China launched its experimental robotic space plane, Shenlong, for the third time, and next week SpaceX plans to launch the US Air Force’s little-discussed X-37B. And, of course, there is Santa’s sleigh, which has a unique and unexplained reindeer propulsion system. Here’s what we know about these mysterious spacecraft.
The size of a small bus, the US military’s X-37B has been used to bring mysterious payloads into space and conduct long-lasting experiments (its last flight lasted more than two years) since its debut in 2010. The government has been tight-lipped about what the Boeing-built spacecraft does exactly, but said in a press statement that the shuttle’s upcoming flight, scheduled for launch on Dec. 28, will be used to test “new orbital regimes” and for “experimenting with future space domain awareness technologies.” It will also be carrying an experiment from NASA to test how seeds are affected by radiation in space.
Previous experiments have tested collecting sunlight and beaming it to Earth as microwaves, testing an electromagnetically steered satellite and researching how different materials react in space. In the past, X-37B has operated in low-Earth orbit, but in its coming flight, it will operate higher than before, though its exact altitude has not been disclosed.
China’s reusable spaceplane, named Shenlong (meaning divine dragon), was launched for the third time on Dec. 14. Its first suborbital flight reportedly occurred in 2011 and its first orbital flight is believed to have been in 2020. Like X-37B, Shenlong can undertake long missions—its second flight lasted 276 days in orbit.
The rocket seems to be used for orbital and payload tests, similar to the X-37B. From what’s been reported, the spaceplane has been used to test reusable technologies, carry scientific experiments, and “provide technical support for the peaceful use of space,” according to Xinhua news. In its current flight, it has released six unidentified objects.
Arguably the world’s first renewable energy-powered shuttle, Santa’s sleigh could be a promising green propulsion method—if anyone can figure out how to reproduce it. It also remains to be seen if reindeer work on an airless trajectory, as there are no confirmed orbital or suborbital flights to date.
Scientists announced this week that the plumes of gas escaping from Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, contain molecules that could be an important key to creating life. With a subsurface ocean, this moon has become one of the most promising places to look for alien life.
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Project Kuiper has successfully tested intersatellite communications with lasers. That puts it one step closer to catching up with Starlink.
SpaceX has been cleared to conduct tests between Starlink and cell phones. The company has partnered with T-Mobile to offer texting through Starlink starting next year.
Rocket Lab had a successful launch last week of its Electron rocket. It’s the first launch since a failed attempt in September.
NASA’s Voyager 1, the farthest spacecraft from Earth, is struggling. The 46-year-old probe is having communication difficulties due to a computer glitch.
Blue Origin is back in space. It successfully launched for the first time in over a year.
This week’s Space Business newsletter was authored by science writer and photographer Mara Johnson-Groh, and edited by Heather Landy.
Last week: The Lunar Anthropocene
This was issue 208 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Send Santa sightings, secret spacecraft tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.