US military's mystery space plane rockets back into orbit
The Space Force has launched the military's mystery space plane again, this time with an extra load of science experiments
This May 5, 2020 photo made available by the United States Space Force shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The U.S. military’s mystery space plane rocketed into orbit again Sunday, May 17 this time with an extra load of science experiments. It’s the sixth flight of an X-37B, a solar-powered plane that's flown by remote control without a crew. (Boeing/USSF)
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The U.S. military’s mystery space plane rocketed into orbit again Sunday, this time with an extra load of science experiments.
It’s the sixth flight of an X-37B, a solar-powered plane that's flown by remote control without a crew.
Officials aren't saying how long the spacecraft will remain in orbit this time or the purpose of the mission. But a senior vice president for X-37B developer Boeing, Jim Chilton, noted each mission has been progressively longer.
The previous mission lasted a record two years, with a touchdown shrouded in darkness at NASA's Kennedy Space Center last year.
The winged spacecraft resembles NASA’s old shuttles, but is just one-quarter the size at 29 feet (9 meters) long. The one just launched features an extra compartment for experiments, including several for NASA and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, making it the biggest science load yet for an X-37B.
The Air Force has two of these reusable space planes. Their home base is a former space shuttle hangar at Kennedy.
“You could say that the X-37B stands on the shoulders of the space shuttle,” Chilton said. “From a common shape to a common home.”
Since the first flight in 2010, the secretive space planes had logged a combined 2,865 days in orbit as of Sunday.
“If you add up all the missions, just under eight years in orbit and 1 billion miles, so a lot of traveling by this machine," Chilton said during the launch broadcast.
Delayed a day by bad weather, this marked just the second rocket launch for the newly established Space Force. In March, it hoisted a national security satellite.
United Launch Alliance, which provided the Atlas V rocket, declared success 1 1/2 hours after liftoff. It dedicated Sunday's launch to the healthcare workers and others who are working on the front lines of the pandemic.
The company said it followed health advice for the launch. Many of the flight controllers wore masks and were spread out.
Precautions were less evident along area causeways, where spectators parked to watch the Atlas soar. Thick, low clouds spoiled the show.
The Cape Canaveral Air Force Station has an exceptionally fast turnaround for its next launch.
Before dawn Tuesday, SpaceX will attempt to launch another batch of its Starlink satellites for global internet service. It will be SpaceX's last flight before its first astronaut launch, scheduled for May 27 from next-door Kennedy Space Center.
Upgraded X-37B spaceplane rockets into orbit aboard Atlas 5 launcher
Darting through low clouds, the US Air Force’s reusable X-37B spaceplane rode a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket into orbit Sunday, debuting upgrades to accommodate additional scientific experiments, a dishwasher-sized tech demo satellite, and classified military objectives.
Riding 860,000 pounds of thrust from its RD-180 main engine, the 197-foot-tall (60-meter) Atlas 5 rocket lumbered off Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 launch pad at 9:14 a.m. EDT (1314 GMT) Sunday.
The kerosene-fueled booster engine powered the rocket through a low cloud layer, and the Atlas 5 disappeared from the view of spectators within seconds. A powerful rumble left in the Atlas 5’s wake moved across the Florida spaceport, lingering after the rocket’s ascent was obscured by clouds.
Flying without any strap-on solid rocket boosters, the Atlas 5 arced toward the northeast and shed its bulbous payload fairing around the X-37B spaceplane nearly four minutes into the mission, once the rocket climbed into the rarefied vacuum of space. The Russian-made first stage engine shut down next, and a hydrogen-fueled Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine ignited to continue accelerating the X-37B spaceship into orbit.
At the request of the U.S. Air Force, United Launch Alliance’s live broadcast ended coverage of the mission’s progress around five minutes after liftoff. The Centaur upper stage was expected to deliver the X-37B — also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle — into orbit in less than 20 minutes, then release the spacecraft.
The Centaur was programmed to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up over the Indian Ocean southwest of Australia around an hour into the mission, according to airspace warning notices released to the public. The re-entry was intended to ensure the launch did not leave any unnecessary space junk in orbit.
Trajectory information gleaned from the airspace warnings suggested the Atlas 5 rocket targeted placement of the X-37B spacecraft in an orbit more than 200 miles (about 350 kilometers) in altitude, with an inclination of around 44 degrees to the equator, according to Marco Langbroek, an archaeologist in the Netherlands who also tracks satellites.
Military officials did not disclose the exact orbital parameters.
ULA declared the launch a success in a press release later Sunday morning, punctuating the 84th flight of an Atlas 5 rocket since its debut in 2002, and the third Atlas 5 flight of 2020.
The U.S. military and ULA dedicated the launch to coronavirus first responders, front-line workers, and victims of the disease. The launch was part of the military’s “America Strong” campaign, joining a series of flyovers of cities nationwide by the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels to salute health care professionals and coronavirus patients and victims.
Shrouded in secrecy, the automated X-37B spaceplane is a reusable vehicle designed to deploy small satellites, host experiments, and pursue other classified objectives. Flying without any astronauts on-board, the vehicle generates electricity with a solar array and can autonomously guide itself to a runway landing at the end of each mission.
The Air Force has disclosed it has two X-37B vehicles in its inventory, and both were built by Boeing. Officials have not confirmed which X-37B vehicle was launched Sunday.
“X-37B is a really interesting machine,” said Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s space and launch division. “It’s a reusable spacecraft. It is autonomous, it flies without crew. It can be rapidly reconfigured to host a wide variety of experiments, and it can take off from standard launch pads on standard rockets under fairing, and it can land autonomously through public airspace.
“You add that all up, there’s a lot of innovation in this machine,” Chilton said during ULA’s launch broadcast Sunday.
The mission launched Sunday is the sixth flight of the X-37B program since 2010. It carries more experiments than any previous X-37B mission, according to the Air Force.
The sixth X-37B mission — designated OTV-6 — is the first to fly with a new service module attached to the aft end of the spaceplane, providing additional capacity for experiments and payloads. The X-37B itself, measuring more than 29 feet (8.9 meters) long, also has a cargo bay inside its fuselage.
Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said earlier this month that the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office is partnering with the U.S. Space Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory on the spaceplane’s sixth mission, which “maximizes the X-37B’s unique capabilities.”
“This important mission will host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments,” Barrett said Wednesday. “One is a sample plate evaluating the reaction of select significant materials to the conditions in space. The second studies the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds.”
“This machine is a great blend of defense and research,” Chilton said.
“NASA has a seed experiment on this flight,” he said. “The idea is they’ve collected a lot of data on the space station around radiation effects on seeds. Long-term human trips (into space) would require some agriculture.
“X-37B can go some places the station doesn’t go, collect different kinds of radiation, and our payload bay can (provide) a different kind of shielding,” Chiltonn said. “So they’ll get more data to complete their set.”
The X-37B also carries a space-based solar power experiment.
“A third experiment designed by the Naval Research Laboratory transforms solar power into radio frequency microwave energy, then studies transmitting that energy to Earth,” Barrett said.
“The service module extends the vehicle capability,” Chilton said. “We can host more payloads that way. so this is the most we’ve ever carried on an X-37B mission. One of the things we’re carrying on that service module, which can release independent satellites, is a satellite designed and built by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy.”
The satellite, named FalconSAT-8, has its own suite of five scientific experiments and tech demo payloads.
Col. Luke Sauter, professor and head of the astronautics department at the Air Force Academy, said the FalconSAT-8 is about the size of a standard dishwasher and weighs a little more than 300 pounds (136 kilograms).
The spacecraft’s will test a novel electromagnetic propulsion system, low-weight antenna technology and a commercial reaction wheel to provide attitude control in orbit, Sauter said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now.
According to the Air Force Academy, FalconSAT 8’s experiments include:
- Magnetogradient Electrostatic Plasma Truster (MEP) – Novel electromagnetic propulsion system
- Metamaterials Antenna (MMA) – Low size, weight, power antenna with phased-array like performance
- Carbon nanotube experiment (CANOE) – RF cabling with carbon nanotube braiding flexed using shape-memory alloy
- Attitude Control and Energy Storage (ACES) – Commercial reaction wheel modified into a flywheel for energy storage and release
- SkyPad – Off-the-shelf cameras and GPUs integrated into low-SWAP (size, weight and power) package
Sauter said the schedule for the deployment of the FalconSAT 8 spacecraft from the X-37B spacecraft remains fluid, and “may be days, weeks or months.”
“We’re a secondary (payload) flying with the host mission, and we’ll likely be released when it impacts their mission the least,” Sauter said. “We already have cadets trained and ready to perform operations when the time comes.”
In a statement before the launch, the Air Force said it “continues to push the flight envelope for the X-37B, and will build upon its growing collaboration with experiment partners with its sixth mission.”
Barrett said the Air Force is declassifying some of the service’s space activities. The X-37B, which Barrett said was “previously cloaked in secrecy,” has accumulated 2,865 days in orbit on five previous missions.
“Each flight has been successively longer, setting a record for duration,” Chilton said. “If you add up all the missions, just under eight years in orbit and a billion miles.”
In addition to hosted payloads, the X-37B itself is an experimental vehicle. Boeing said in a statement after Sunday’s launch that the mission “will test reusable space vehicle technologies.”
The X-37B remains an Air Force asset, officials said. The newly-established Space Force is responsible for the launch, on-orbit operations and landing.
“The ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth is unique to the X-37B program and enables the U.S. to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain,” the Air Force said in a statement.
Boeing has built two X-37B vehicles for orbital flights. The program began under NASA management before transferring to DARPA in 2004, then to the Air Force in 2006.
The first X-37B space mission launched in April 2010. Four of the previous X-37B flights have launched on ULA Atlas 5 rockets, and one lifted off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher.
Boeing and military teams ready the reusable spaceplanes inside a former space shuttle processing facility at Kennedy. The first three X-37B missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, but the most recent two flights concluded with returns to the Shuttle Landing Facility runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a few miles from the X-37B’s hangar.
Boeing is responsible for refurbishing the X-37B between missions, and integrates experiments on the vehicle inside a modified space shuttle processing facility at Kennedy.
“You can say that the X-37B stands on the shoulders of the space shuttle,” Chilton said. “The differences? The X-37B is autonomous, the X-37B is more rapidly reconfigurable, and frankly the challenge of coming down through public airspace without crew has been overcome, and proven to work well.
“Also the difference is the duration the X-37B can fly,” Chilton said. “Our last mission was 780 days, and that’s a lot longer than the shuttle could stay aloft.”
Navy’s solar power satellite hardware to be tested in orbit
WASHINGTON — A U.S. Naval Research Laboratory experiment to capture solar power in space for use on Earth is now in orbit and ready to be tested.
The experiment flew to orbit on May 17 aboard the U.S. Air Force X-37B spaceplane. The technology aboard the plane is a “photovoltaic radio-frequency antenna module” to be tested as part of a comprehensive investigation into terrestrial use of solar energy captured in space, program manager Chris Depuma said May 18 in a news release.
“To our knowledge, this experiment is the first test in orbit of hardware designed specifically for solar power satellites, which could play a revolutionary role in our energy future,” said the principal investigator Paul Jaffe.
The 12-inch square tile module will test whether power can be harvested from its solar panel and transform the energy to a radio frequency microwave. The experiment has been in the works for more than a decade.
The module converts sunlight for microwave power transmission. Depuma said engineers decided to not use optical power transmission because a lot of energy would be lost through clouds and atmosphere.
The Naval Research Laboratory said the results of the experiment could drive the design of a dedicated spacecraft to test the transmission of energy back to Earth. The Pentagon is interested in this technology to provide energy to remote installations like forward operating bases and disaster response areas.
Researchers believe that a space solar system traveling above the atmosphere would catch far more energy than it would be possible on the ground due to the abundant and unimpeded sunlight in space.
One of the concerns is the thermal performance of the hardware. “It’s kind of a tricky problem to have something that’s in direct sunlight all the time and maintain the temperature of the electronics,” said Jaffe.
Solar power satellites could provide energy anywhere in the world, he said. “So a really important component of these kind of satellites would be a device that can convert the sunlight into microwaves or some other form of electromagnetic energy that’s suitable for sending to Earth. Now is the time to test it in space and see how it performs.”
USSF-7 mission director reflects upon 28.5 year space career
An Atlas V carrying the USSF-7 mission aboard rolls to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex - 41, May 14. Liftoff is scheduled for May 16. at 8:24 a.m. EDT. (Photo courtesy of ULA)
LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE – EL SEGUNDO, Calif. --
Thirty years ago as an Air Force ROTC cadet at the University of Washington, Col. Shane Clark had no idea how his career would turn out, or the circuitous route he would take to where he is today as mission director for the launch of the U.S. Space Force's USSF-7, and the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for the Department of the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office.
“I was planning to be an electrical engineer in the Air Force when I entered ROTC in 1986 but was later slated to be a navigator. The idea of flying around the world in a C-141 was very appealing. However, prior to commissioning, the Air Force reevaluated its navigator requirements and determined they didn’t need as many as originally projected. They then vectored me to the missile career field,” said Clark, a senior materiel leader with the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise, and chief of the Atlas V and Delta IV division.
“I was initially disappointed, but quickly realized once I got to Vandenberg Air Force Base for Peacekeeper ICBM initial qualification training what an important mission it was -- and still is -- and my time at F.E. Warren Air Force Base was foundational to every success I’ve had throughout my career.”
Since his first assignment as a missileer entrusted with the awesome responsibility for 50 nuclear armed Peacekeeper ICBMs, Clark’s career highlights include internships at the Pentagon and DARPA, graduate school at both the Air Force Institute of Technology and U.S. Naval War College, military assistant to the Deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, working at the Missile Defense Agency, and a squadron commander tour flying Air Force, Navy and NASA satellites at Kirtland AFB in what is now known as SMC’s Advanced Systems and Development Directorate.
After 21 years of multiple TDYs back to Vandenberg, but never thinking he would be assigned there again, Clark was surprised and humbled to learn he was selected in late 2013 to serve as vice commander of the 30th Space Wing.
“Being vice commander of a Space Wing was a tremendous experience. Having responsibility across the entire wing and installation, in support of the commander, interfacing with Airmen from every career field, tenants, community leaders, state and national leadership, and higher headquarters was personally and professionally rewarding,” said Clark. “Providing Gen. Hyten an aerial tour of Vandenberg, the Air Force’s third largest base, and driving actor Gary Sinise of Forrest Gump fame around the base to meet Airmen were additional highlights. This was also my first exposure to space launch and range operations.”
Unlike Clark’s current position as either the mission director or senior launch vehicle advisor to the MD, at Vandenberg he was the launch decision authority (LDA) for the Western Range. The LDA, supported by a team of range and safety professionals, assesses the risk to people and critical resources for any launch or test activity on the range and provides or withholds “clear to launch.”
“I was LDA for a two space launches; Delta II and Falcon 9, two flight tests; Minuteman III and a Missile Defense Interceptor, and participated in numerous other launches and tests in a different capacity. Ironically, I was at Vandenberg when the X-37B landed in October 2014 after 674 days in orbit and now I’m launching the X-37B as the mission director for USSF-7.”
What Clark does now for the Launch Enterprise is what he considers the best O-6 job in the Space Force.
“I’ve had an amazing career working for and with incredible people. Every assignment has its rewards and unique challenges. I always tried to learn from any challenge (interpersonal, technical, schedule, etc.) and use that experience to either avoid a similar situation in the future or overcome it,” said Clark.
“I wasn’t successful every time but I avoided spectacular failures and kept the ball moving in the right direction. Some of my biggest challenges (learning moments) occurred as a company grade officer and Major. Additionally, performance in each job was a stepping stone to the next, starting with that first assignment at F.E. Warren,” Clark explained. “My leadership along the way played a key role in how I got to where I am today. I’m forever grateful for the leadership opportunities given, the feedback received and their influence on my career path.”
Clark considers it an honor and privilege to be the mission director for USSF-7, launching the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the SMC Launch Enterprise team and mission partners.
“As the MD, acting on behalf of Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of SMC, it’s my responsibility to ensure the integrated launch team (launch vehicle and space vehicle) are ready for launch with a data-driven, attention-to-detail focus, and give the final 'Go' for launch," said Clark. “It’s truly a team effort, with years of collaboration between United Launch Alliance, the launch vehicle provider for this mission, SMC, Aerospace Corporation, the Boeing space vehicle team and the 45th Space Wing.”
When he’s not wearing his mission director hat for this particular launch, Clark is responsible for the space flight worthiness of the Atlas V rocket via a rigorous and independent mission assurance (MA) process. “That MA process is the secret sauce to our National Security Space Launch program’s perfect record over the last 17 years,” said Clark. “I’m proud to have played a role in that success during the last four years and 18 NSS launches prior to USSF-7.”
With USSF-7 now successfully in orbit after a one day delay due to weather, Clark concludes his final launch as mission director and turns his attention to his next “mission” later this summer. After 28+ years of active duty, he is moving to Huntsville, Ala. and retirement.
“The whole family is excited to finally settle into our forever home with no more PCS’s in sight,” said Clark. “My aperture is wide open for my post-military career. I have one must have: Find something I enjoy with a team I enjoy working with.”
When questioned about whether he thought of joining the newly formed Space Force, Clark said the timing unfortunately just didn’t meet the needs of his family, but he is helping with the stand up of one of the new Field Commands and excited to see it and the Space Force evolve over time.
“The Space mission, enabled by the men and women of the U.S. Space Force, is so incredibly important to our Nation and allies,” said Clark. “I look forward to watching their successes and perhaps contributing somehow in my next ‘assignment’.”
Reflecting upon where he’s been since an Air Force cadet to a retiring colonel, Clark said there is no precise path to a successful career.
“Blossom where you are planted, or said differently, do the best you can in the job you have. It’s rare that every opportunity we get is the exact position we’d want or the job we enjoy the most. However, if you do your best, strive to make a difference and foster a positive atmosphere, you’ll succeed in the Space or Air Force.”
Quelle: United States Space Force