Today was the scheduled liftoff day for the fifth X-37 mission (OTV-5), and the first aboard a Falcon 9. (X-37 was designed from the start to be compatible with almost any launch vehicle, including the Space Shuttle, but its first four launches were all aboard the Atlas V.) As a bonus, since SpaceX is still unable to use their original Florida launchpad, Cape Canaveral Air Station’s SLC-40, this launch used the pad they’re adapting for Falcon Heavy, Kennedy Space Center’s venerable LC-39A. So LC-39A got to launch another spaceplane after all. 😉 (LC-39A’s last spaceplane launch was STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program, just over six years ago.)
Coverage of the ascent stops with first stage separation, as normal for classified flights*, but since this was Falcon 9, we got to see coverage of the first stage continue all the way to touchdown back at the Cape. Now, SpaceX gets to scramble to safe it and stash it safely in a hangar in advance of Hurricane Irma.
*X-37 is not a classified spacecraft, but its missions are generally classified. This one does carry one unclassified payload, the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, for the Air Force Research Laboratory. It will “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment”. Satellites already use heat pipe technology to draw waste heat away from sensitive electronic components (since obviously fans don’t work for cooling a spacecraft computer), but this new technology will be lighter and cheaper. All the other payloads, as well as their quantity and the target orbit and any planned maneuvers, remain classified. But they are probably also experimental technologies, since X-37 offers a unique opportunity to test equipment for a long duration in space and recover it for extensive engineering analysis afterwards.
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.
On July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to stop at Kennedy Space Center for the very last time. If you want to relive that moment, here’s NASA’s STS-135 landing video. It’s half an hour long; skip ahead to 9 minutes to see the HUD video from the Orbiter, and the runway coming up for the night landing:
STS-135 was commanded by Chris Ferguson, who has since retired from NASA and now works for Boeing. He’s serving as program manager for the CST-100 Starliner program, and has dibs on the first CST-100 crewed flight; if he gets his way, he intends to retrieve the very same flag he left on the ISS during STS-135 five years ago.
Meanwhile, OV-104 Atlantis herself has been moved to form the centerpiece of a spectacular display at the KSC Visitor’s Center, where she is displayed with payload bay doors open, RMS reaching out across the room, as if in flight — forever.
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is pretty serious about building a credible space program. After already positioning themselves favorably in the competitive international launch business, they’ve already accomplished the remarkable feat of placing a spacecraft in orbit around another planet — one of only a handful of nations to do so. Now they’re working towards reusable spaceflight, and also manned spaceflight by setting out on one of the holy grails of human spaceflight: the reusable orbital spaceplane that takes off and lands on a runway. No one has yet come particularly close; the Space Shuttle is by far the most successful spaceplane, but it launched as a two-stage rocket and was only partially reusable. Venturestar sought to become a single-stage-to-orbit fully reusable rocketplane, but was cancelled. X-37 is a fully reusable spaceplane, but cannot launch itself and requires an expendable booster to carry it to orbit. (Or the Space Shuttle. It was originally envisioned as fitting into a Shuttle’s payload bay.)
As the first major step on this rather long path, ISRO has built and launched a scale model spaceplane very similar in appearance to the X-37. Called the Reusable Launch Vehicle Technology Demonstrator, it launched early today from Sriharikota’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre atop a solid-propellant ATV sounding rocket, an unusually heavy sounding rocket built by ISRO largely for projects such as this one. It accelerated the automonous spaceplane to at least Mach 5, reaching a maximum altitude of 65 km and a downrange distance of 450 km before making what was apparently a surprisingly well controlled bellyflop into the Bay of Bengal. (The test article was not intended to be recoverable, as it survival was considered dubious. But it will have recoverable successors.) It carried out tests of the heatshield technology, guidance, flight control, and navigation systems. It did not reach the Karman Line and thus is not a true spaceflight, but it was not intended to be; this is a subscale test to validate the basic design before proceeding to higher energies.
Update: video of today’s landing is now up!
The first X-37B spacecraft has returned from its second trip into space (third for the program, as there are two vehicles), which lasted a record-setting 675 days, the greatest duration for any reusable spacecraft. It landed at Vandenberg AFB in Florida this morning. This is expected to be its final landing in Florida; the Air Force has leased one of the old Space Shuttle bays at the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center to be its new home, and future landings are expected to take place on the Shuttle Landing Facility strip. This will be a money-saving move to avoid having to ship it across the entire continent between flights. X-37B is cheaper to move than Shuttle was, but it’s still a substantial expense.
Here’s the video of today’s landing:
And I’m not just talking about the formal bid protest that they’ve filed with the Government Accounting Office, fighting NASA’s award of the CCtCap contract to Boeing and SpaceX. No, I’m talking about something new.
Sierra Nevada has found a new partner in Stratolaunch, which from the beginning had wanted to launch humans via a large rocket slung under their monstrous twin-boom carrier aircraft. To that end, they initially had partnered with SpaceX, to fly a Falcon 9 rocket with perhaps a Dragon capsule on the end. But SpaceX eventually backed out, perhaps because of the difficulties of running a liquid-fuel rocket in that manner, perhaps because it distracted from their overall plan. Whatever the reason, they backed out, and Stratolaunch ended up teaming with Orbital Sciences, which already has experience with air-launch in their Pegasus rocket, and was more than happy to provide a larger solid-fuel rocket and the avionics they’d developed for Pegasus. Today, they’ve got a crewable spacecraft to add to the overall package: a scaled-down version of the Dream Chaser. I don’t know if this will ever fly, but I sure hope it does. In many ways, this seems like a more fitting way to launch a spaceplane — from runway to space and then back to runway. 😉
NASASpaceFlight.com: Dream Chaser eyes rides on under review Stratolaunch system