A lot has changed since the last Space Age. Unlike the days of Sputnik, Vostok, Mercury, and Apollo, the current era is not defined by two superpowers constantly vying for dominance and one-upmanship. More than ever, international cooperation is the name of the game, with space agencies coming together to advance common exploration and science goals. Similarly, there is the way the private space sector has become a major participant, providing everything from launch services and commercial payloads to satellite constellations and crews.
But in some ways, old habits die hard. Since the turn of the century, China has emerged as a major power in space, to the point of becoming a direct competitor with NASA’s human space programs. For the past few years, China has been developing a reusable autonomous spaceplane to compete with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). Known as Shenlong (“divine dragon”), this spaceplane recently concluded its second test flight after spending 276 days in orbit. Though the details are scant, the Chinese state media company Xinua declared the flight a breakthrough for the Chinese space program.
At 5:22 AM Eastern Time on November 12, the Space Force’s (and Air Force’s) X-37B spaceplane landed back on Earth after two and a half years in orbit. The secretive spaceplane has now performed 6 missions, and the latest, OTV-6, was the longest flight yet. Details about the X-37B’s purpose are scarce, though it is clear that the vehicle is designed to serve as a testbed for advanced spaceflight capabilities. Here’s what we know about the latest mission.
On Friday, Sept. 4th, China launched a new and mysterious spacecraft from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The nature (and even appearance) of the spacecraft remains unknown, but according to statements made by Chinese authorities, it’s a reusable spaceplane. This vehicle is essentially China’s answer to the USAF/USSF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which made its sixth launch to space (OTV-6) back in late-May.
The United States and Russia/USSR have been adversaries for a long time. Their heated rivarly stretches back to the waning days of WW2, when the enormous Red Army was occupying large swathes of eastern Europe, and the allies recognized the inherent threat.
The Cold War followed, when the two nations aimed an absurd number of nuclear warheads at each other. Then came the Space Race, when both nations vied for the prestige of making it to the Moon.
The US won that race, but the rivalry didn’t cool down.
Solar power has become a focal point of the battle to mitigate climate change. The potential of solar power is massive – Earth receives as much solar energy in an hour as all of humanity uses in a year. Even with that much energy hitting the Earth, it is only a tiny fraction of the sun’s overall output. Some of that other solar energy hits other planets, but most is just lost to the void of deep space.
There are a number of groups that are leveraging various technologies to capture some of that lost energy. One of the most common technologies being pursued is the idea of the power satellite. Recently, one of those groups at America’s Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) hit a milestone in the development of power satellite technology by launching their Photovoltaic RF Antenna Module (PRAM) test satellite.
On February 19th, 2019, the US Space Force (USSF) was officially created with the signing of Space Policy Directive–4. This effectively broke off from the US Air Force Space Command (AFSC) and made into the sixth and youngest independent branch of the armed forces. Since then, the USSF has established a headquarters, taken on staff from the US Air Force, and even produced a recruitment video!
In their latest announcement, the US Space Force stated that it will begin training soon to develop their staff’s “space warfighting skills.” This will include training personnel to specialize in orbital warfare, electronic warfare, military strategy, and others. The immediate aim is to produce personnel who can control US space infrastructure and protect it from physical, electronic, or digital attacks.
There has been quite a bit of buzz in the past few years about the US Space Force (USSF), especially now that they are recruiting! The sixth and youngest branch of the US Armed Forces, Space Force was created in 2019 when the Air Force Space Command (AFSC) was broken off from the US Air Force (USAF) and made into an independent service branch.
There’s been even more buzz about the USAF’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), a reusable robotic spaceplane whose official purpose is still highly classified! And now, the USAF and the U.S. Space Force have come together to launch the X-37B on its sixth mission (OTV-6). In just two days, this spaceplane will take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to perform a number of tasks (some of which we know about!)
The X-37B, the US Air Force’s experimental, Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has come back down to Earth after 780 days. It landed at the Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Oct. 27, 2019, at 3:51 a.m. after breaking its own record for time in space. The X-37B has now spent 2,865 total days in orbit.
Ever since it started taking to space, there has been a lot of mystery and controversy surrounding the USAF’s X-37B space plane. Despite the fact that this militarized-version of NASA’s orbital vehicle has conducted several spaceflights since its first in 2010, we still have no idea what its true purpose is. But so far, the smart money appears to be on it being an advanced spy plane.
Hoping to gather clues to this question, skywatcher and satellite tracker Ralf Vandebergh of the Netherlands has spent the past few months hunting for this space plane in the night sky. Recently, he was fortunate enough to not only locate the elusive X-37B in the sky but also managed to snap some photographs of it. Given its diminutive size and secretive-nature, this was no small feat!
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.