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.
Delta IV pulled off another flawless launch from Cape Canaveral today, placing the Wideband Global SATCOM-9 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. WGS-9 is a military commsat operated by the United States Air Force but jointly procured by five other nations: Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. This was not the first WGS satellite paid for by a foreign power; WGS-6 was contributed by Australia. And ground stations have been paid for partially by partner nations, who, again, receive bandwidth in proportion to their investment. USAF is moving towards launch of WGS-10 later this year, but that is expected to be the final element of the constellation, at least int the forseeable future.
This was the 35th flight of Delta IV, and the 108th successful Delta program launch in a row. This flew in the 5,4 configuration — 5 meter fairing, 4 solid rocket motors. Single-core Delta IV is expected to retire by the end of 2018, with only the Delta Heavy continuing on, alongside the Vulcan rocket that will be ULA’s next offering (intended to replace both Delta IV and Atlas V).
Atlas V has put another notch in their impressive belt of successful missions. It’s not a cheap rocket, but it is certainly reliable. It’s an interesting launch to watch; the rocket seems to practically crawl out of Vandenberg. This is the lightest variant of Atlas V, and from the performance I’d guess the payload/orbit is right at the limits of its capacity without boosters. Makes it kind of fun to watch. 😉
An Atlas V in its base 401 configuration placed the SBIRS GEO 3 military early-warning satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit this evening:
Two more successful launches this week! First off, yesterday India placed the Resourcesat 2A spacecraft into orbit aboard a PSLV XL rocket from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island. The satellite will fly on a polar orbit (inclination 98.7 degrees) to study resource utilization, soil contamination, water usage, and so forth across the Indian subcontinent.
Then this evening, a rare Delta IV Medium rocket (the “stick” configuration of the Delta IV, seldom used because although it is highly reliable, it is also highly *expensive*) placed the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) 8 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. WGS-8 will serve military customers, providing both targeted and full-disk communications beams in variety of frequency bands. It is the most capable military commsat launched by the USAF, capable of serving multiple bands simultaneously and even switching between them on the fly.
And here’s a rather different perspective on the launch — a deceptively peaceful one, shot by a drone over nearby Cocoa Beach. The audio is from the operator’s cellphone, so mostly records the sound of the ocean waves rolling in. You have to listen carefully to hear the distant warbling roar of the rocket.
Early this morning, a Delta IV rocket blasted off, placing the next two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites into geosynchronous transfer orbit. These payloads, built by Orbital ATK for the USAF, will augment ground radar tracking allowing better prediction of collisions between objects in orbit. As Near Earth Orbit grows increasingly crowded, this will only become more important as time goes on. Here’s the full capture of the United Launch Alliance livestream; skip ahead to 25 minutes for the actual launch: