An unmanned U.S. Air Force space plane lifted off from America’s Space Coast on Wednesday a top a United Launch Alliance Atlas rocket beginning the programs fourth experimental flight.
This new mission is the second flight of the second autonomous Boeing-built X-37B spacecraft which will spend at least a year soaring around the planet approximately 400 miles above. Today’s launch also marks the fourth X-37B mission to test new technologies and spacecraft systems in orbit.
Under a cloudless sky, the Atlas 5 rocket’s core engine ignited as the countdown clock reached zero, lifting off on time at 11:05 a.m. EDT. A second later, nearly 870,000 pounds of thrust pushed the rocket and it’s historic military payload off it’s seaside launch pad and out over the Atlantic waters.
The delta winged spacecraft later separated from the Atlas’ Centaur upper stage nearly twenty minutes into the flight. As the X-37B navigated away the upper stage, The belly of the vehicle is protected with a black thermal protection system designed by NASA. Aligned with protective black and white thermal tiles, the mini space shuttle has a wing span of 14 feet, 11 inches from tip to tip.
“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force,”said ULA Vice President for Atlas Jim Sponnick on Wednesday. “Congratulations to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch! The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission.”
Riding into Earth orbit with the X-37B was a payload consisting of ten science investigative CubeSats designed by both NASA, U.S. Naval Academy and the California Polytechnic State University. The mini satellite payloads were stored in chambers and attached to the lower section of the Centuar stage near its engine nozzle.
The payloads will look into many fields including the first satellite designed as a UNIX Web server in space using “common TCP/IP Internet protocol accessible to any Internet user,” according to the National Reconnaissance Office “The U.S. Naval Academy will also be comparing the Internet speed of the space-based network versus terrestrial networks.”
Following an undisclosed flight time, the space plane is expected to touchdown in late-2016 at its prime landing site in California. Once the Air Force brings the reusable space plane home, it will reenter just like the space shuttle and aim for a touchdown on runway 12 at Vandenberg, AFB, located northeast of Los Angeles.
Lt. Col. Troy Giese, the OTV systems program director said, “Upon being given the command to return to Earth, the X-37B will automatically descend through the atmosphere and land on the designated runway. There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it.” If weather or technical issues arise on landing day, then Edwards, AFB will be called up with it’s longer runway.