It looks like a US Air Force robotic orbiter will push back the planned launch date of NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). The double satellite launch, originally set for November this year, will now take place sometime early 2009. They will make way for the test flight of the orbital Boeing X-37B spaceplane, commandeering the Atlas V rocket flight originally intended for NASA. According to the Air Force, the November X-37B test flight will be a study into “risk reduction, experimentation, and operational concept development for reusable space vehicle technologies.” (There might also be some urgency due to the Shuttle decommissioning in 2010…)
The X-37B’s predecessors have undergone exhaustive testing. Based at Edwards Air Force Base, California, the US military has been testing automated spaceplanes for many years. NASA has also been heavily involved in the program. Originally tasked with developing a Space Manoeuvre Vehicle (SMV) that could either be launched by the Shuttle or by rocket, the US Air Force wanted an automated orbital vehicle that could carry out a multitude of tasks in space for up to a year. The X-40 design evolved and by 1998, the vehicle was being dropped from helicopters and allowed to land like a conventional aircraft (automatically). The X-40 military program was then passed to NASA to use as the basis of the X-37 program. After a long period of development, the X-37A was used in conjunction with Scaled Composites WhiteKnightOne (pictured below).
Now the brand new Boeing X-37B is ready to be launched to begin its first automated orbital operations, re-enter and land conventionally. The Atlas V rocket will blast off from Cape Canaveral and the X-37B will hopefully land on schedule at Edwards Air Force Base. The X-37B is 27 ft (8 m) long with a 15 ft (4.5 m) wingspan and resembles a blindfolded mini-Shuttle (it really does! See the picture at the top of the article).
Although there will be a lot of anticipation for the X-37B test flight, it is a shame for the lunar mission scientists who are currently preparing the LRO and LCROSS for their trip to the Moon. The LRO’s objective is to orbit the Moon, analysing the surface to aid future manned missions. LCROSS has something a little more spectacular planned; it will create two impact plumes during it’s kamikaze mission in aid of detecting present water in the lunar rock.