The 196-foot-tall United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket tasked with launching the Air Force’s secretive X-37B spaceplane on its fourth mission arrived at its launch pad today, standing tall and counting down toward a launch attempt tomorrow, May 20. The Air Force AFSPC-5 mission will also deliver The Planetary Society’s privately funded Lightsail spacecraft test article to orbit. Several small satellites for the NAVY and NRO, as well as a NASA materials science experiment, will be hitching a ride on the X-37B.
First motion of the rocket rolling out of its seaside Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) occurred at 9:04 a.m. EDT this morning. Liftoff is scheduled to occur sometime between 10:45 a.m. EDT and 2:45 p.m. EDT. Due to the secretive nature of the X-37B the actual launch window will not be announced until the day of launch; however, the airspace closure around Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is from 11:05 a.m. till 1:30 p.m. EDT, hinting that the first launch attempt could be as early as 11:05 a.m. EDT.
UPDATE: Two 10-minute launch windows. First is 11:05 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. EDT, second is 12:42 p.m. – 12:52 p.m. EDT. FOLLOW our AFSPC-5 Launch Tracker for updates and LIVE COVERAGE!
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 important to spacecraft longevity in geosynchronous orbit. Three small U.S. Naval Academy satellites and two small Aerospace Corp. satellites demonstrating military technologies, as well as several more secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spacecraft, are all onboard the X-37B, which 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.
However, according to Canadian researcher Ted Molczan in our in-depth launch and mission preview story, the previous three X-37B flights have all flown in 40-43 degree orbits, and the OTV-4 onboard AFSPC-5 will be launched into about a 350-km (218-mile) orbit, inclined 39 degrees. The Centaur will then be maneuvered into a 350 x 700 km (218 x 435 mi) orbit inclined 57 degrees, where it will deploy the LightSail and other spacecraft.
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 as early as 2016. However, being that a Falcon Heavy has yet to fly, and not expected to conduct a test flight until at least the fall, a 2016 operational Falcon Heavy launch with customer payloads is questionable at best.
BELOW: Photos Credit: Alan Walters / Mike Killian / AmericaSpace. Video and additional photos courtesy of ULA.
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