by Dr. Ken Kremer, Universe Today and AAAP
On May 20, the X-37B, a reusable Air Force space plane launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its fourth classified mission. The program is steeped in mystery about its true goals for the U.S. military. It was accompanied to orbit by ten tiny CubeSat experiments for NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) including a solar sailing demonstration CubeSat for The Planetary Society called LightSail.
The military space plan successfully blasted off for low Earth orbit atop a 20-story United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 11:05 AM EDT from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on the clandestine Air Force Space Command 5 satellite mission for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. The exact launch time was classified until it was released by the Department of Defense a few hours before liftoff.
Among the experiments were 10 CubeSats housed in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier located below the rocket’s Centaur upper stage. Together they are part of the National Reconnaissance Office’s Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat). They were contained in eight P-Pod carriers from which they were deployed in orbit.
Among the few non-classified experiments aboard was a NASA materials science experiment called METIS and an advanced Hall thruster experiment. The Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon.
LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth-orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. Photons from the sun should push on the solar sails.
“The purpose of this LightSail demonstration test is to verify telemetry, return photos and test the deployment of the solar sails,” said Bill Nye, the Science Guy and President of The Planetary Society. “LightSail is comprised of three CubeSats that measure about 30 cm by 10 cm.”
The Boeing-built X-37B is an unmanned reusable mini shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), and is flying on the OTV-4 mission. It launches vertically like a satellite but lands horizontally like an airplane and functions as a reliable and reusable space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. It is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles. Boeing has built two OTV vehicles, but it is not known which of the two vehicles was launched.
Together the two X-37B vehicles have spent a cumulative total of 1367 days in space during the first three OTV missions and successfully checked out the vehicles reusable flight, re-entry and landing technologies.
The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.
Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and re-entry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift to conducting research.
The next SpaceX cargo resupply launch to the ISS is now slated for June 26. I’ll be reporting from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center press site for Universe Today.
For complete details about SpaceX and the X-37B check out my recent articles and photos at Universe Today and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kremerken1
Astronomy Outreach by Dr. Ken Kremer
SpaceX Launches: Jun 24-27, NASA Kennedy Space Center, FL. Evening outreach at Quality Inn, Titusville, FL