The rocket tasked with launching the next mission from Cape Canaveral, Fla., is well into its final processing events for a scheduled launch attempt on May 20. The Air Force AFSPC-5 mission, which will fly the secretive X-37B spaceplane to orbit (for the fourth time) and deliver the Planetary Society’s privately-funded Lightsail spacecraft to orbit, will launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V 501 rocket from Space Launch Complex-41.
On Friday, May 8, the encapsulated AFSPC-5 payloads were stacked atop their 196-foot-tall rocket at ULA’s beachside Atlas Vertical Integration Facility (VIF).
The Air Force’s secretive X-37B, the AFSPC-5 primary payload known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), will fly at least two publicly disclosed experiments onboard: a NASA materials science investigation and a military electric propulsion test. The spacecraft itself looks uncannily similar to NASA’s retired space shuttle, albeit a quarter of the size, but its true capabilities and primary mission(s) have always been classified, as is its whereabouts on orbit and mission duration.
Described as “the United States’ newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft,” the OTV’s close resemblance to the space shuttle is misleading. In orbit, it deploys an array of gallium arsenide solar cells, which, when combined with power from a set of lithium-ion batteries, have thus far enabled it to remain aloft for more than 30 times longer than the average shuttle mission. Its payload bay measures 7 feet long and 4 feet wide and can house cargoes weighing between 500-660 pounds. An advanced avionics suite and airframe, together with electromechanical actuators and autonomous guidance controls, has focused the OTV’s mandate onto “risk reduction, experimentation, and operational concept development for reusable vehicle technologies in support of long-term developmental space objectives.”
The Planetary Society’s solar sail satellite Lightsail, which is funded entirely by private citizens, will be hitching a ride to orbit on AFSPC-5 as well, as part of a secondary payload dubbed ULTRASat. Lightsail will conduct its first flight test via AFSPC-5, giving its team an opportunity to check the operation of vital systems in the extreme environment of space in low-Earth orbit (LEO). A mission-ready Lightsail is expected launch to Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2016.
“I’m naturally happy and excited, but I admit, a bit nervous,” said Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye. “We’ve been working to get a solar sail into space since I joined The Planetary Society Board in 1997. It’s quite a milestone. Deep breath, no turning back now, this baby’s on its own now.”
The fully integrated Atlas-V and AFSPC-5 will be rolled out for launch May 19, with the first launch attempt scheduled to lift-off at 10:45 a.m. EDT May 20.
BELOW: The Air Force’s AFSPC-5 payload, encapsulated inside a 5-meter diameter payload fairing, is mated to an Atlas V booster inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41. All Photos Credit: ULA
Missions » Air Force OTV » AFSPC-5 »