SpaceX Sets Oct. 11 Sunset Blastoff of SES-11 North American UHD TV Sat on Used Falcon 9 Rocket: Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket carrying SES-11/EchoStar 105 UHD TV commercial comsat raised erect atop Launch Complex 39A as flock of birds flies by at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, is poised for sunset liftoff on 11 Oct 2017 on world’s third reflight of a liquid fueled orbit class rocket. As seen from the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX is all set for a sunset blastoff Wednesday, Oct. 11 of the commercial SES-11/EchoStar 105 Ultra High Definition (UHD) TV satellite serving North America on a ‘used’ Falcon 9 booster from the Florida Space Coast – that is also targeted to re-land a second time on an sea going platform off shore in the Atlantic.

Spectators should enjoy a spectacular view of the SpaceX Falcon 9 dinnertime launch with a forecast of extremely favorable weather conditions. This comes on the heels of multiple deluges of torrential rain that twice scrubbed last week’s launch of a United Launch Alliance V carrying a USAF spy satellite.

The private SES-11/EchoStar 105 communications satellite mission will launch on a ‘flight-proven’ booster and is slated for a dinnertime liftoff on Oct. 11 at 6:53 p.m. EDT from seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying the SES-11.

All systems are GO at L Minus 1 Day!

“#EchoStar105 is targeted for launch Oct. 11 from launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida-launch window 6:53-8:53 PM EDT,” EchoStar tweeted today.

“Getting Echostar-105/#SES11 ready for launch!” SES tweeted further.

SES-11/EchoStar 105 commercial telecomsat. Credit: SES

If all goes well this will be the second launch for SpaceX this week following Monday’s Falcon 9 launch from Vandenberg AFB, Ca carrying 10 Iridium-NEXT satellites to orbit – and a record setting 15th of 2017!

EchoStar 105/SES-11 is a high-powered hybrid Ku and C-band communications satellite launching as a dual-mission satellite for US-based operator EchoStar and Luxembourg-based operator SES.

The used two stage 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket was rolled out to pad 39A today, erected to vertical launch position and is now poised for liftoff Wednesday.

It will launch the two and a half ton EchoStar 105/SES-11 to geostationary orbit some 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the equator.

SpaceX will also attempt to recover this recycled Falcon 9 first stage booster again by soft landing on a droneship platform prepositioned hundreds of miles off shore in the Atlantic Ocean – some 8 minutes after blastoff.

Spectacular weather is expected Wednesday for space enthusiasts gathering in local regional hotels after traveling here from across the globe.

Playalinda Beach is among the best places to witness the launch from – while surfing the waves too – if you’re in the area.

You can watch the launch live on a SpaceX dedicated webcast starting about 10 minutes prior to the 6:53 pm EDT or 10:53 pm UTC liftoff time.

Watch the SpaceX broadcast live at: SpaceX.com/webcast

The two hour long launch window closes at 8:53 p.m. EDT.

The weather outlook is currently exceptional along the Florida Space Coast with a 90% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. The primary concerns on Oct. 11 are only for Cumulus Clouds.

The odds remain high at 90% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Oct. 12.

Reflown SpaceX Falcon 9 soars to orbit with SES-10 telecomsat from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 6:27 p.m. EDT on March 30, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The 45th Space Wing forecast is also favorable for the landing recovery area through Thursday “when a low pressure system may move into the area, increasing winds and seas. This low will migrate west and possibly impact Florida by the weekend.”

After the 156 foot tall first stage booster complets its primary mission task, SpaceX engineers seek to guide it to a second landing on the tiny OCISLY drone ship for a soft touchdown some eight and a half minutes after liftoff.

World’s first reflown rocket booster – the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage – sails back into Port Canaveral, FL just before sunrise atop OCISLY droneship on which it landed 9 minutes after March 30, 2017 liftoff from KSC with SES-10 telecomsat – as seen entering channels mouth trailing a flock of birds from Jetty Park pier on April 4, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

OCISLY or “Of Course I Still Love You” left Port Canaveral several days ahead of the planned Oct. 11 launch and is prepositioned in the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles (600 km) off the US East coast, just waiting for the boosters 2nd approach and pinpoint propulsive soft landing.

The EchoStar 105/SES-11 spacecraft was built by Airbus and shipped from the Airbus facilities in Toulouse, France to Cape Canaveral, FL for flight processing.

The satellite is scheduled to be deployed approximately 36 minutes after liftoff.

Up close view of payload fairing encapsulating SES-11/EchoStar 105 UHD TV commercial comsat atop ‘flight-proven’ SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Liftoff is slated for is 6:53 p.m. ET, Oct. 11, 2017 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“SES-11 is a high-powered communications satellite designed to especially accelerate the development of the US video neighbourhood, and the delivery of HD and UHD channels. Optimised for digital television delivery, SES-11 joins SES-1 and SES-3 at the centre of its robust North American orbital arc, which reaches more than 100 million TV homes. Together with SES-1 and SES-3, SES-11 will be utilised for the expansion of the North America Ultra HD platform,” according to SES.

“SES-11 offers comprehensive coverage over North America, including Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean, and will also empower businesses and governments to capture new opportunities and expand their reach across the region.”

The path to launch was cleared following last weeks successful static fire test of the first stage engines Falcon 9.

During the Oct. 2 static fire test, the rocket’s first and second stages were fueled with liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants like an actual launch, and a simulated countdown was carried out to the point of a brief engine ignition.

The hold down engine test with the erected rocket involved the ignition of all nine Merlin 1D first stage engines generating some 1.7 million pounds of thrust at pad 39A while the two stage rocket was restrained on the pad – minus the expensive payload.

SpaceX conducts successful static hot fire test of recycled Falcon 9 at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 2 Oct 2017 as a gator gazes from Playalinda waterways, FL. Liftoff is slated for 7 Oct 2017 with SES-11/EchoStar 105 telecommunications comsat. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Following the hot fire test, the rocket was rolled back to the processing hangar located just outside the pad perimeter fence.

The 5,200 kg (11,500 pounds) satellite encapsulated inside the payload fairing was then integrated with the Falcon 9 rocket.

Mating of SES-11/EchoStar 105 commercial telecomsat. Credit: SES

This is only the third recycled SpaceX Falcon 9 ever to be launched from Pad 39A.

SES was the first company to ever fly a payload on a ‘flight-proven’ Falcon 9. The SES-10 satellite lifted off successfully this spring on March 30, 2017.

The second reflown booster successfully launched the BulgariaSat-1 a few months later.

This Falcon 9 booster previously flew on SpaceX’s 10th resupply mission to the International Space Station (CRS-10) in February of this year and made a ground landing at the Cape at LZ-1.

Pad 39A has been repurposed by SpaceX from its days as a NASA shuttle launch pad.

The last SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from KSC took place on Sept. 7 carrying the USAF X-37B military space plane to orbit just ahead of Hurricane Irma.

USAF X-37B military mini-shuttle lifts off on classified OTV-5 mission at 10 a.m. EDT Sept. 7, 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX SES-11, ULA NROL-52 and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Mission patch for the SES-11/EchoStar 105 communications satellite launch by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket carrying SES-10 telecomsat raised erect atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center as seen from inside the pad ahead of liftoff on 30 Mar 2017 on world’s first reflight of an orbit class rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

X-37B Secret Air Force Spaceplane Blasts Off on SpaceX Falcon 9 as Monster Hurricane Irma Threatens Florida Peninsula

USAF X-37B military spaceplane blasts off with picturesque water reflections at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 UTC) Sept. 7, 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Amidst the frenzy of ‘Sunshine State’ preparations for Cat 5 monster Hurricane Irma and quite dismal weather favorability odds, the skies surrounding the Florida Space Coast suddenly parted just in the nick of time enabling the Air Force’s secret military X-37B spaceplane to blast off this morning (Sept. 7) on a SpaceX Falcon 9 as the booster nailed another thrilling ground landing back at the Cape.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 roared to life at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 UTC) Thursday morning and soared aloft from seaside Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center into nearly clear blue skies after the classified launch time was kept guarded until just 10 minutes before liftoff.

Due to the potential for catastrophic destruction from approaching Hurricane Irma this was the last chance for the X-37B to escape Florida to orbit before the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station almost certainly close on Friday, the backup launch opportunity.

The X-37B OTV spaceplane reached orbit as planned on SpaceX’s 13th launch of the year.

“The 45th Space Wing successfully launched a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle Sept. 7, 2017, from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A,” the USAF and 45th Space Wing confirmed in a post launch statement.

The Falcon 9 launch was absolutely gorgeous taking place under near perfect weather conditions at launch time and putting on a long sky show as the rocket accelerated to orbit with its precious cargo.

USAF X-37B military spaceplane blasts off with picturesque water reflections at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 UTC) Sept. 7, 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The nine Merlin 1D first stage engines ignited to generate a combined 1.7 million pounds of thrust fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants, sending a huge exhaust plume billowing from behind as the rocket ascended off pad 39A and thundered aloft.

After first stage burnout and main engine cutoff the stages separated at T plus 2 min 26 seconds.

After successfully delivering the secret USAF mini-shuttle to orbit, SpaceX engineers completed the 2nd half of the double headed space spectacular when the Falcon 9 first stage booster successfully made a guided soft landing back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS).

The boosters high speed descent generated multiple shockingly loud sonic booms as the 156-foot-tall first stage approached SpaceX’s dedicated Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) on CCAFS that reverberated for dozens and dozens of miles across and beyond the Space coast region.

The mid-morning daylight first stage precision guided landing offered spectators a magnificent up close view of the rocket reusability technology envisioned by SpaceX’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk to drastically slash the high costs of launching people and payloads to space.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage fires Merlin 1D engine in final moments of descent to accomplish successful propulsive touchdown at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched the USAF X-37B military spaceplane on its 5th flight to space on the OTV-5 mission at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 UTC) Sept. 7, 2017 from pad 39A at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Meanwhile, Hurricane Irma continues barreling towards Florida packing winds of 185 mph as one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever. It is being closely tracked in incredibly high resolution by the new NASA/NOAA GOES-16 (GOES-R) satellite launched late last year on a ULA Atlas V in Nov 2016.

Here’s the latest storm track updated to Friday morning Sep 8:

Hurricane Irma Cone forecast on Sept 8, 2017 from the National Hurricane Center. Credit: NHC

The X-37B reusable mini-shuttle is a secretive technology testing spaceplane flying on its fifth mission overall for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

“The OTV is designed to demonstrate reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operate experiments, which can be returned to and examined on Earth,” said the USAF.

Launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sept. 7 , 2017 carrying the X-37B mini-shuttle to orbit for the USAF. Credit: Julian Leek

Also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, the X-37B launched on the OTV-5 mission marks the programs maiden liftoff on the 230-foot-tall SpaceX Falcon 9.

All four prior OTV missions launched on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V and ended with runway landings in either California of Florida.

USAF X-37B military mini-shuttle lifts off at 10 a.m. EDT Sept. 7, 2017 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The X-37B 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.

The Boeing-built X-37B is processed for flight at the Kennedy Space Center, FL, using refurbished former NASA space shuttle processing facilities (OPFs) now dedicated to the reusable mini-shuttle, also named the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).

The USAF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is set for blastoff on Sept. 7, 2017, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: Boeing/USAF

The last blastoff of the X-37B took place more than 2 years ago on May 20, 2015 when the OTV-4 mission launched on a ULA Atlas V on May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

After spending a record setting 718 days in orbit, the X-37B vehicle completed its fourth mission with a runway landing back at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility earlier this year on May 7, 2017.

Overall the OTV unmanned spacecraft have spent a total of 2,085 days in orbit.

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of-the art reusable OTV space plane is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m).

The X-37B was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

Since then most but not all of the spaceplane’s goals have been shrouded in secrecy.

Sept. 7 , 2017 liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sept. 7, 2017 carrying the X-37B mini-shuttle to orbit for the USAF. Credit: Jeff Seibert
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rolls horizontally up incline at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 6 Sept. 2017. The rocket is being processed for liftoff of the X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up close head on view of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rolling horizontally up incline at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 6 Sept. 2017. The rocket is being processed for liftoff of the X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rolls horizontally up incline at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 6 Sept. 2017 ahead of liftoff of the X-37B OTV-5 spaceplane mission on Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Secret X-37B Military Mini-Shuttle Set for SpaceX Blastoff/Landing Sept. 7 as Cat 5 Hurricane Irma Forces Florida State of Emergency – Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rolls horizontally up incline at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 6 Sept. 2017. The rocket is being processed for liftoff of the X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Although its far from sunny in the so called ‘Sunshine State’ the secret X-37B military mini-shuttle is set for a SpaceX blastoff and booster landing combo Thursday, Sept. 7 – even as the looming threat from Cat 5 Hurricane Irma forced Florida’s Governor to declare a statewide ‘State of Emergency.’

Launch preparations were in full swing today on Florida’s Space Coast for liftoff of the hi tech USAF X-37B reusable spaceplane- hoping to escape to orbit for the first time atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and just in the nick of time tomorrow, before the impending threat of monster storm Irma potentially lashes the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the center of the states long peninsula.

Hurricane Irma Cone forecast on Sept 7, 2017 from the National Hurricane Center. Credit: NHC

Irma is packing winds of 185 mph and one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever. It is being closely tracked in incredibly high resolution by the new NASA/NOAA GOES-16 (GOES-R) satellite launched late last year on a ULA Atlas V in Nov 2016.

I witnessed the entire SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and payload stack being rolled horizontally up the incline to the top of Launch Complex 39A late this afternoon, Sept. 6, during our media visit for up-close camera setup.

Up close head on view of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rolling horizontally up incline at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 6 Sept. 2017. The rocket is being processed for liftoff of the X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Rather remarkably the relatively dismal weather forecast has brightened considerably in the final hours leading to Thursday’s scheduled launch and the forecast heavy rain showers and thunder have dissipated in the time remaining between now and liftoff.

The X-37B reusable mini-shuttle is a secretive technology testing spaceplane flying on its fifth mission overall.

Up close side view of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and nose cone housing the X-37B OTV-5 spaceplane slated for liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The path to launch was cleared following the successful engine test firing of the Falcon 9 first stage I witnessed late last week, Thursday afternoon, Aug. 30.

During the hold down static fire test all nine Merlin 9 stage engine were ignited and fired up to full throttle for several seconds. See my static fire story here.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 first stage rocket at 4:30 p.m. EDT on Aug. 31, 2017 on Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl., as seen from nearby Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the USAF X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Although the exact launch time remains a closely guarded U.S. Air Force secret, liftoff of the X-37B is slated to occur sometime during a 5 hour long window.

The launch window for the X-37B on the OTV-5 mission opens at 9:50 a.m. EDT (13:50 UTC) and spans until 2:55 p.m. EDT (18:55 UTC) Sept. 7 from seaside Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX will offer their own live webcast beginning approximately 15 minutes before launch starting at about 9:35 a.m. EDT.

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at the SpaceX hosted Webcast at – spacex.com/webcast

In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is Friday, Sept 8 at approximately the same time and window.

However amidst the heavy duty Hurricane Irma preparations all around, nothing is certain. Local area schools in Brevard County have closed and local residents are preparing their homes and apartments to hunker down, buying food and essentials putting up storm shutters, topping off gas and energy supplies and more.

“If for any reason we cannot launch tomorrow we will reevaluate whether or not we can still support another attempt on Friday, said Wayne R. Monteith, Brig Gen, USAF, Commander, 45th Space Wing.

The weather forecast overall is about 50% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. But the opportunity varies within the long window and the exact launch time is currently classified.

“Hurricane Irma is forecast to be approximately 900 miles southeast of the Spaceport during Thursday’s launch attempt, so while Irma certainly bears watching, the stalled boundary will be the main factor in Thursday’s weather,” noted the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron.

The primary concerns on Sept. 7 are for cumulus clouds and for thick clouds in the flight path.

The odds drop to 40% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Friday, Sept 8

The USAF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is set for blastoff on Sept. 7, 2017, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: Boeing/USAF

Everything is currently on track for Thursday’s launch of the 230 foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9 on the X-37B OTV-5 mission.

“The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is undergoing final launch preparations for the fifth mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle [OTV],” the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs announced. “The OTV is scheduled to launch on Sept. 7, 2017, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rolls horizontally up incline at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 6 Sept. 2017 ahead of liftoff of the X-37B OTV-5 spaceplane mission on Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

The X-37B will be launched for the fifth time on the OTV-5 mission atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sept. 7 from Launch Complex 39A on the Kennedy Space Center Florida into low Earth orbit.

The Boeing-built X-37B is processed for flight at KSC using refurbished NASA space shuttle processing facilities now dedicated to the reusable mini-shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). 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.

The OTV-5 mission marks the first launch of an X-37B spaceplane by SpaceX.

All four prior OTV missions launched on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V and ended with runway landings in either California or Florida.

“The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program,” said Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

“It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community.”

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

SpaceX will also attempt another land landing of the 156-foot-tall Falcon 9 first stage back at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at the Cape.

The Falcon 9 first stage is equipped with a quartet of landing legs and grid fins to enable the rocket recycling plan.

Up close view of SpaceX Falcon 9 landing legs for the X-37B OTV-5 spaceplane slated for liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This marks the 7th time SpaceX attempts a ground landing at the Cape.

The booster will touch down about 8 minutes after launch and generate multiple sonic booms screaming loudly across the surrounding region and beyond.

“The fifth OTV mission will also be launched into, and landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelope.”

The daylight first stage precision guided landing should offer spectators a thrilling up close view of the rocket reusability technology envisioned by SpaceX’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk to drastically slash the high costs of launching to space.

Technicians work on the Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 4, which landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida May 7, 2017. Credit: Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs.

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m).

The X-37B was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

Since then most but not all of the spaceplane’s goals have been shrouded in secrecy.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Successful Static Fire Test Sets SpaceX on Target for Post Labor Day Launch of USAF X-37B Mini-Shuttle Sept. 7

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 first stage rocket at 4:30 p.m. EDT on Aug. 31, 2017 on Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl., as seen from nearby Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the USAF X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

PLAYALINDA BEACH/KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Following a successful engine test firing of the Falcon 9 first stage late Thursday afternoon (Aug. 30), SpaceX is targeting a post Labor Day launch of the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned X-37B reusable mini-shuttle – a secretive technology testing spaceplane.

The brief but critical hold down engine test took place at 4:30 p.m. EDT (2030 GMT) Aug. 31 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center – as witnessed live by myself and several spectators from nearby Playalinda Beach Causeway. See my photos herein.

Both SpaceX and the Air Force announced the target launch date after completion of the Aug. 31 engine test.

“Static fire test complete,” SpaceX confirmed via Twitter soon after completion of the test, “—targeting Falcon 9 launch of OTV-5 from Pad 39A at @NASAKennedy on Thursday, September 7.”

The routinely done static fire test and involves conducting a full launch dress rehearsal and countdown culminating with igniting all nine Merlin 1D first stage engines during a hold down test at the pad.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 first stage rocket at 4:30 p.m. EDT on Aug. 31, 2017 on Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl., as seen from nearby Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the USAF X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Merlin’s generated a combined 1.7 million pounds of thrust and a huge exhaust plume billowing into the air from the north side flame trench during the test, which lasted several seconds.

The plume soon swirled overhead and dissipated about 10 minutes later. Ignition was accompanied by a loud roar we heard screaming out from the pad in all directions. A number of folks driving to and from Playalinda Beach had stopped to ask me what I was photographing prior to the test and stayed to witness the event.

The rocket will be lowered rolled back horizontally on the transporter erector into the SpaceX processing hangar and the spaceplane housed inside the payload fairing will be integrated on top. The full stack will then be rolled back out and erected at pad 39A.

The hold down test firing is carried out without the payload bolted on top inside the nose cone to keep it safe in the event of a catastrophic failure event such as occurred precisely 1 year ago – when a Falcon 9 blew up during fueling for similar engine test with the AMOS-6 satellite resulting in destruction of the rocket as well as the customers satellite hardware at pad 40.

The exact launch time had been a closely guarded secret – until this evening.

The X-37B launch is apparently lunchtime Thursday, September 7 at 12 PM – 12:01 PM, according to a Facebook post by the U.S. Air Force Space Command and the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., posted Friday evening.

“The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is undergoing final launch preparations for the fifth mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle [OTV],” the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs announced. “The OTV is scheduled to launch on Sept. 7, 2017, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

The USAF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is set for blastoff on Sept. 7, 2017, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: Boeing/USAF

The X-37B will be launched for the fifth time on the OTV-5 mission atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sept. 7 from Launch Complex 39A on the Kennedy Space Center Florida into low Earth orbit.

The Boeing-built X-37B is processed for flight at KSC using refurbished NASA space shuttle processing facilities now dedicated to the reusable mini-shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). 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.

But in another first, the OTV-5 mission marks the first launch of an X-37B spaceplane by SpaceX.

All four prior OTV missions launched on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V and ended with runway landings in either California of Florida.

“The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program,” said Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

“It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community.”

The OTV-4 mission launched on the ULA Atlas V on May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41, on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Blastoff of the X-37B spaceplane on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the OTV-4 AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After spending a record setting 718 days in orbit, the X-37B program completed its fourth mission with a runway landing back at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility on May 7, 2017. Overall OTV’s have spent a total of 2,085 days in orbit.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 first stage rocket at 4:30 p.m. EDT on Aug. 31, 2017 on Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl., as seen from nearby Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the USAF X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Playalinda Beach is located just 4 miles north of pad 39A and offers an excellent launch viewing location for the OTV-5 mission – if officials allow it to be open to the public.

The engine test comes at the end of a very busy August with a trio of Florida Space Coast launches plus a Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ sandwiched in between.

Also noteworthy is that OTV-5 will be launched into a higher inclination orbit compared to the prior four, serve as a technology testbed for multiple research payloads and will also somehow deploy several small satellites or cubesats.

“The fifth OTV mission continues to advance the X-37B’s performance and flexibility as a space technology demonstrator and host platform for experimental payloads,” the USAF said in a statement.

“This mission carries small satellite ride shares and will demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies. Building upon the fourth mission and previous collaboration with experiment partners, this mission will host the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader payload to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment.”

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 first stage rocket at 4:30 p.m. EDT on Aug. 31, 2017 on Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl., as seen from nearby Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the USAF X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX will also attempt another land landing of the 156-foot-tall Falcon 9 first stage back at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at the Cape.

The Falcon 9 first stage is equipped with a quartet of landing legs and grid fins to enable the rocket recycling plan.

“The fifth OTV mission will also be launched into, and landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelope.”

The daylight first stage precision guided landing should offer spectators a thrilling up close view of the rocket reusability technology envisioned by SpaceX’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk to drastically slash the high costs of launching to space.

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m).

The X-37B was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

Since then most but not all of the spaceplane’s goals have been shrouded in secrecy.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 first stage rocket at 4:30 p.m. EDT on Aug. 31, 2017 on Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl., as seen from nearby Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the USAF X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and NASA mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxiing on the flightline on March 30th, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Florida. Credit: USAF
SpaceX Falcon 9 booster stands at Launch Complex 39A after successful Aug 31, 2017 hotfire engine as seen from nearby Playalinda Beach. Liftoff of the USAF X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Super Secret X-37B Nears One Year In Orbit Doing ???

For years now, the program to develop the X-37B spacecraft has been shrouded in secrecy. Originally intended as part of a NASA project to develop a reusable unmanned spacecraft, this Boeing-designed spaceplane was taken over by the Department of Defense in 2004. And while it has been successfully tested on multiple occasions, there remain some unanswered questions as to its intended purpose and what has been taking place during these flights.

This, predictably, has lead to all kinds of rumors and speculation, with some suggesting that it could be a spy plane while others think that it is intended to deliver space-based weapons. It’s latest mission – which was dubbed OTV-4 (Orbital Test Vehicle-4) – has been especially clandestine. And after nearly a year in orbit, it remains unclear what the X37B has been doing up there all this time.

Continue reading “Super Secret X-37B Nears One Year In Orbit Doing ???”

U.S. Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches, Ending Monopoly

SpaceX Falcon 9 is now certified for USAF launches. SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

The U.S. Air Force announced Tuesday that they have certified SpaceX to launch the nations critical and highly valuable national security satellites on the firms Falcon 9 rocket, thereby breaking the decade old launch monopoly held by launch competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is a joint venture owned by aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force’s goal in approving the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster is aimed at drastically cutting the high cost of access to space by introducing competition in the awarding of military mission launch contacts. The prior contract involved a sole source $11 Billion “block buy” bid for 36 rocket cores from ULA in December 2013 which was legally challenged by SpaceX in April 2014, but eventually settled by SpaceX in an agreement with the USAF earlier this year.

Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), announced the long awaited decision on Tuesday, May 26.

The certification milestone came after a grueling two year review process in which the Air Force invested more than $60 million and 150 people to thoroughly review all aspects of the Falcon 9 booster. The review was based on three successful flights by the Falcon 9 v1.1 which first launched in late 2013.

The purpose of certification is to assure that qualified launch providers could meet the challenge of safely, securely and reliably lofting expensive U.S. national security military missions to space and into their intended orbits with full mission capability that are critical for maintaining national defense.

“The SpaceX and SMC teams have worked hard to achieve certification,” said Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, in a statement.

“And we’re also maintaining our spaceflight worthiness process supporting the National Security Space missions. Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible.”

And the competitive launch races “for award of qualified national security space launch missions” between SpaceX and ULA start very soon, within the next month says the USAF.

In June, the Air Force will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for GPS III launch services. ULA has three GPS launches in its manifest for 2015.

Of course SpaceX was overjoyed on hearing the certification news.

“This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch, said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer.

‘We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”

Until today, ULA has held a launch monopoly over military missions since the company was founded in 2006. ULA also launches many NASA science missions, but very few commercial satellites.

Thus the U.S. military and NASA provide the core of ULA’s business and the source of much of its income and profits.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is now certified by the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, in a statement.

“SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”

Other military spacecraft in the future could involve vehicles such as the X-37B space plane which recently launched on an Atlas V, as well as weather satellites, signals intelligence and missile warning satellites and a range of top secret missions for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that have been routinely launched by ULA with a 100% success rate to date.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Atlas V and Delta IV families of vehicles. ULA is phasing out the Delta IV due to its high costs. Only the Delta IV Heavy will remain in service as required to launch the very heaviest satellites that cannot be accommodated by less powerful rockets.

ULA is also replacing the Atlas V with the partly reusable new Vulcan rocket, that will be phased in starting in 2019 using American-made engines from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The Atlas V uses Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s use has become highly contentious since the deadly crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014.

The ensuing threats of RD-180 engine embargoes and imposition of sanctions and counter sanctions imposed by the US and Russia have thus placed US national security at risk by being dependent on a rocket with foreign made engines whose future supply chain was uncertain.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been highly critical of the ULA dependence on the Russian RD-180 engines and issued this statement in response to the Air Force announcement.

“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition, said McCain.

“Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high. I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Overall the Air Force “invested more than $60 million and 150 people in the certification effort which encompassed 125 certification criteria, including more than 2,800 discreet tasks, 3 certification flight demonstrations, verifying 160 payload interface requirements, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits in order to establish the technical baseline from which the Air Force will make future flight worthiness determinations for launch.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Weekly Space Hangout – May 23, 2015: Dr. Rhys Taylor

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest:Dr. Rhys Taylor, Former Arecibo Post Doc; Current research involves looking for galaxies in the 21cm waveband.

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 23, 2015: Dr. Rhys Taylor”

X-37B Air Force Space Plane Launches on 4th Mystery Military Mission and Solar Sailing Test

Blastoff of the X-37B spaceplane on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the OTV-4 AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated with additional details and photos[/caption]

The X-37B, a reusable Air Force space plane launched today, May 20, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its fourth mission steeped in mystery as to its true goals for the U.S . military and was accompanied by ten tiny cubesat experiments for NASA and the NRO, including a solar sailing demonstration test for The Planetary Society.

The military space plan successfully blasted off for low Earth orbit atop a 20 story United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on the clandestine Air Force Space Command 5 (AFSPC-5) satellite mission for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office at 11:05 a.m. EDT (1505 GMT) today, May 20, from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The weather cooperated for a spectacular liftoff from the Florida space coast, which was webcast live by ULA until five minutes after launch when it went into a communications blackout shortly after announcing the successful ignition of the Centaur upper stage.

The exact launch time was classified until it was released by the Department of Defense this morning. Early this morning the four hour launch window was narrowed down to two small windows of opportunity.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats housed in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage. Together they are part of the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO’s) Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat). The 10 CubeSats in ULTRASat are managed by the NRO and NASA. They are contained in eight P-Pods from which they will be deployed in the coming days.

Also aboard the X-37B is 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.

Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft.

They are sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA and were developed by the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, California Polytechnic State University, and The Planetary Society.

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 return and to test the deployment of the solar sails,” said Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and President of The Planetary Society, during the X-37B launch webcast.

“LightSail is comprised of three CubeSats that measure about 30 cm by 10 cm.”

“It’s smaller than a shoebox, everybody! And the sail that will come out of it is super shiny mylar. We’re very hopeful that the thing will deploy properly, the sunlight will hit it and we’ll get a push.”

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch of USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek

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.

“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force. 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” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

The two stage Atlas V stands 206 feet tall and weighs 757,000 pounds.

The X-37B was carried to orbit by the Atlas V in its 501 configuration which includes a 5.4-meter-diameter payload fairing and no solid rocket motors. The Atlas first stage booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine generating some 850,000 pounds of thrust and fired for approximately the first four and a half minutes of flight. The Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The X-37B space plane was to separate from the Centaur about 19 minutes after liftoff. The Centaur continued firing separately with the CubeSat deployment, including the Planetary Society’s LightSail test demoonstration, into a different orbit later.

Overall this was ULA’s sixth launch of the 501 configuration the 54th mission to launch on an Atlas V rocket. This was also ULA’s fifth launch in 2015 and the 96th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006.

The OTV 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 today.

Altogether 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, reentry 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.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

All three OTV missions to date have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Future missions could potentially land at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

The following flights were progressively longer in duration. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The third OTV mission launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and landed on Oct. 17, 2014 after 674 days in orbit.

The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m). The payload bay measures 7 ft × 4 ft (2.1 m × 1.2 m). The space plane is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium-Ion batteries.

Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift somewhat more to conducting research.

“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” Randy Walden, director of the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”

US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
Launch of the X-37B spaceplane on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket successfully launched the AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT today, Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: ULA

Hunting LightSail in Orbit

The hunt is on in the satellite tracking community, as the U.S. Air Force’s super-secret X-37B space plane rocketed into orbit today atop an Atlas V rocket out of Cape Canaveral.  This marks the start of OTV-4, the X-37B’s fourth trip into low Earth orbit. And though NORAD won’t be publishing the orbital elements for the mission, it is sure to provide an interesting hunt for backyard satellite sleuths on the ground.

Previous OTV missions were placed in a 40 to 43.5 degree inclination orbit, and the current NOTAMs cite a 61 degree azimuth angle for today’s launch out of the Cape which suggests a slightly shallower 39 degree orbit. Such variability speaks to the versatile nature of the second stage Centaur motor.

Image credit:
A capture of the X-37B in orbit. Image credit and copyright: Luke (Catching up)

There’s also been word afoot that future X-37B missions may return to Earth at the Kennedy Space Center, just like the Space Shuttle. To date, the X-37B has only landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

But there’s also another high interest payload being released along with a flock of CubeSats aboard AFPSC-5: The Planetary Society’s Lightsail-1.

Image credit:
The UltraSat P-POD CubeSat dispenser. Image credit: United Launch Alliance

About the size of a loaf of bread and the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, LightSail is set to demonstrate key technologies in low Earth orbit before the Planetary Society’s main solar sail demonstrator takes to space in 2016.

The idea of using solar wind pressure for space travel is an enticing one. A big plus is the fact that unlike chemical propulsion, a solar sail does not need to contend with hauling the mass of its own fuel. The idea of using a solar sail plus a focused laser to propel an interstellar spacecraft has long been a staple of science fiction. But light-sailing technology has had a troubled history—the Planetary Society lost its Cosmos-1 mission launched from a Russian submarine in 2001. JAXA has fared better with its Venus-bound IKAROS, also equipped with a solar sail. To date, the IKAROS solar sail is the largest that has been deployed, at 20-metres on the diagonal.

Another use for space sail technology is the commanded reentry of spacecraft at the end of their mission life, as demonstrated by NanoSail-D2 in 2011.

Prospects of seeing LightSail may well be similar to what we had hunting for NanoSail-D2. Unfolded, LightSail will be 32 square meters in size, or about 5.6 meters on a side. NanoSail-D2 measured 3.1 meters on a side, and the reflective panels on the Iridium satellites which produce brilliant Iridium flares exceeding Venus in brightness measure about the size of a large rectangular door at 1 x 3 meters. Even the Hubble Space Telescope can flare on occasion as seen from the ground if one of its massive solar arrays catches the Sun just right.

Image credit:
Hubble can flare too! Image credit: David Dickinson

The 39 degree orbital inclination angle will also limit visible passes to from about 45 degrees north to 45 degrees south latitude.

Hunting down X-37B and LightSail will push ground observing skills to the max. Like NanoSail-D2, LightSail probably won’t be visible to the naked eye until it flares. What we like to do is note when a faint satellite is set to pass by a bright star, then sit back with our trusty 15x 45 image-stabilized binoculars and watch. We caught sight of the ‘tool bag’ lost during an ISS EVA in 2009 in this fashion. There it was, drifting past Spica as a +7th magnitude ‘star’. The key to this method is an accurate prediction—Heavens-Above now overlays orbital satellite passes on all-sky charts—and an accurate time source. We prefer to have WWV radio running in the background, as it’ll call out the time signal so we don’t have to take our eyes off the sky.

Image credit:
The orbital trace of OTV-3. Image credit: Orbitron

Veteran satellite watcher Ted Molczan recently discussed the prospects for spotting LightSail once it’s deployed.  “By then, the orbit will be visible from the northern hemisphere during the middle of the night. The southern hemisphere may have marginal evening passes. Note that the high area to mass ratio with the sail deployed, combined with the low perigee height, is expected to result in decay as soon as a couple days after deployment.”

Read a further discussion concerning OTV-4 and associated payloads by Mr. Molczan on the See-Sat message board here.

The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis confirmed for Universe Today that LightSail will deploy 28 days after launch. But we may only have a slim two day observation window for LightSail between deployment and reentry.

A deployment of LightSail 28 days after launch would put it in the June 16th timeframe.

“That’s the nominal mission time, yes,” Davis told Universe Today. “Our orbital models predict 2-10 days. For our 2016 flight, the mission will last at least four months.”

The Planetary Society plans to have a live ‘mission control center’ to track LightSail after P-POD deployment, complete with a Google Map showing pass predictions.

Satellite spotting can be a fun and addictive pastime, where part of the fun is sleuthing out what you’re seeing. Hey, some relics of space history such as the early Vanguards, Telstars, and Canada’s first satellite Alouette-1 are still up there! Nabbing these photographically are as simple as plopping your DSLR on a tripod, setting the focus and doing a time exposure as the satellite passes by.

Image credit:
The X-37B undergoing encapsulation in preparation for launch. Image credit: USAF

Here’s to smooth solar sailing and clear skies as we embark on our quest to track down the X-37B and LightSail-1 in orbit.

-Follow us as @Astroguyz on Twitter, as we’ll be providing further info on orbits and visibility passes as they are made public.

Air Force X-37B Spaceplane Launches on May 20 with Military, NASA and LightSail Payloads: Watch Live

Fourth flight of the secretive U.S. Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is set for blastoff on May 20, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo: Boeing
Story updated with further details and photos[/caption]

All systems are currently “GO” for the fourth launch of the US Air Force’s secretive unmanned, X-37B military space plane this Wednesday, May 20, on a flight combining both US national security experimental payloads as well as civilian science experiments sponsored by NASA, US Universities, commercial companies, and the solar sailing LightSail test from the Planetary Society.

LightSail marks the first controlled, Earth orbit solar sail flight according to the non-profit Planetary Society. It will launch as a separate cubesat experiment. NASA also has an advanced materials science experiment flying aboard the robotically controlled X-37B.

The X-37B is set for blastoff atop a two stage United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket on the AFSPC-5 mission under contract for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

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.

Although virtually all the goals of the X-37B program are shrouded in secrecy, some details on the national security objectives have emerged and there are several unclassified experiments flying along as secondary objectives on the rocket and space plane, among them are experiments for NASA and the Planetary Society.

LightSail launches aboard the X-37B on May 20, 2015.  Credit: The Planetary Society
LightSail launches aboard the X-37B on May 20, 2015. Credit: The Planetary Society

Among the primary mission goals of the first three flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely. OTV-4 will shift somewhat more to conducting research.

“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” Randy Walden, director of the USAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”

Liftoff will take place from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at some point during a four hour launch period that opens at 10:45 a.m. EDT and extends until 2:45 p.m. EDT on May 20.

ULA announced that the Launch Readiness Review was completed on Monday and everything is progressing normally toward the AFSPC-5 launch. The rocket is fully assembled and the space plane is encapsulated inside the 5 meter diameter payload fairing. It rolled out to the pad today, Tuesday, May 19.

You can watch the Atlas launch live via a ULA webcast here: http://www.ulalaunch.com

The ULA webcast begins at 10:45 a.m. EDT on May 20. The precise launch time is classified and won’t be announced until Wednesday morning.

The weather prognosis has improved markedly to a 60 percent chance of favorable weather conditions, up from only a 40 percent chance this past weekend.

The primary weather concerns are for violations of the launch weather rules related to cumulus clouds, surface electric fields, anvil clouds and lightning.

Launch officials are hopeful that acceptable launch conditions will occur sometime during the lengthy four hour launch window.

In the event of a 24 hour delay due to weather or technical issues, the outlook drops to only a 30% chance of favorable weather conditions during the launch window.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles. Boeing has built two OTV vehicles.

2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012.  The record setting mission lasted 469 days in earth orbit.  Designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane, the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, built by Boeing for the United States Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, is an affordable, reusable space vehicle. Credit: Boeing. See landing video below
2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandernberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012. It is designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane. Credit: Boeing.

Altogether 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, reentry and landing technologies.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and a NASA space shuttle. The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.

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.

All three OTV missions to date have launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Future missions could potentially land at the shuttle landing facility at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle poised for launch atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

The following flights were progressively longer in duration. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The third OTV mission launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and landed on Oct. 17, 2014 after 674 days in orbit.

The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m). The payload bay measures 7 ft × 4 ft (2.1 m × 1.2 m). The space plane is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with Lithium-Ion batteries.

The OTV-4 mission will shift its focus at least somewhat from tests of the vehicles performance to more on science experiments both with extra capacity available on the Atlas V rocket and payload space aboard the X-37B itself.

“We’re very pleased with the experiments lined-up for our fourth OTV Mission OTV-4,” Walden noted.

“We’ll continue to evaluate improvements to the space vehicle’s performance, but we’re honored to host these collaborative experiments that will help advance the state-of-the-art for space technology

Among the experiments for the flight are 10 CubeSats. They will launch in the Aft Bulkhead Carrier (ABC) located below the Centaur upper stage that contains eight P-Pods to release the CubeSats.

Following primary spacecraft separation the Centaur will change altitude and inclination in order to release the CubeSat spacecraft, ULA said in a statement.

They are sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and NASA and were developed by the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory, California Polytechnic State University, and Planetary Society.

NASA is also flying an advanced materials science payload on the X-37B called the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation that will build on more than a decades worth of materials science research on the International Space Station (ISS) research.

“By flying the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation on the X-37B, materials scientists have the opportunity to expose almost 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days. METIS is building on data acquired during the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), which flew more than 4,000 samples in space from 2001 to 2013, NASA said in a statement.

“By exposing materials to space and returning the samples to Earth, we gain valuable data about how the materials hold up in the environment in which they will have to operate,” said Miria Finckenor, the co-investigator on the MISSE experiment and principal investigator for METIS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Spacecraft designers can use this information to choose the best material for specific applications, such as thermal protection or antennas or any other space hardware.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance to launch USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
United Launch Alliance to launch USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle on May 20, 2015. Credit: Julian Leek
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X-37B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-4 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to planned 20 May 2015 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The X-37B is similar in many ways to NASA's space shuttle - but it is far smaller and unmanned. Photo Credit: Air Force
The X-37B is similar in many ways to NASA’s space shuttle – but it is far smaller and unmanned. Photo Credit: Air Force
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com