Without any fanfare, the OTV-4 mission came to an end over the weekend, landing at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility following 718 days in orbit.:
As with the previous three Orbital Test Vehicle missions, the majority of its activities remain undisclosed. However, this time the Air Force did disclose two payloads: an experimental ion thruster built by Aerojet-Rocketdyne and a NASA payload called METIS (Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space) that exposed over a hundred samples of materials, such as polymers, ceramics, and more.
The fifth OTV mission has not yet been announced.
This was a busy week for spaceflight. In addition to the ongoing SpaceX investigation and the OSIRIS-REx launch, there was also a launch from India and a landing in Kazakhastan.
First off, the successful return of Aleksey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka, and Jeffrey Williams aboard Soyuz TMA-20M earlier this week:
You may remember them as the crew that had this awesome mission patch:
And then from Sriharikota, India’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre, an all-domestic GSLV rocket blasted off, delivering the Insat 3DR weather satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The GSLV has had a difficult path, as various components are replaced or added or removed or changed and with an unfortunately high rate of failures. So this launch was particularly important for ISRO, which seeks to become a viable international competitor in the commercial launch market. Their rockets are cheaper even than Falcon 9, and GSLV’s increased performance over the highly reliable PSLV is critical in order to capture valuable geosynchronous business. (GSLV actually stands for Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle.) What’s more, ISRO will be depending on GLSV to place their next Chandrayaan moon probe into lunar transfer orbit — and that one will be their most ambitious deep space probe yet, featuring orbiter, lander, and rover in one mission. But until then, check out the Insat 3DR launch. Notice one unique feature: the core stage is solid, while the strap-ons are hypergolic, so the plume is inverted from what you’d expect on an Atlas or Long March launch. It’s an intriguing hybrid of a rocket — solid core, hypergolic strap-on boosters, and a cryogenic upper stage. And perhaps it is finally coming into its own.
It’s only a matter of time now before we see one of these stage make its second flight! Perhaps the most amazing part is how routine this is already starting to feel. Make no mistake, though — this is still a very high-energy system where things can still go very wrong very quickly. SpaceX makes it look easy, but it’s anything but. This payload is JCSAT-16, a Japanese commercial geostationary commsat with a 15-year design life that will initially enter service as an on-orbit spare for JSAT Corporation, providing relays in Ku- and Ka- band wavelengths.