Saturday, March 05, 2011

Air Force's secret space shuttle arrives in orbit

The second Air Force X-37B mini shuttle prepares for launch. (USAF)

A second space shuttle is soaring tonight upon the ocean of space, this one unmanned and half the size of NASA's orbiters, following it's lift-off today from Cape Canaveral for the Air Force.

This is the second X-37B space plane which closely resembles the space shuttle to reach orbit in less than one year.

The nearly ten-foot high, twenty-nine foot long X-37B has a wing span of fifteen feet from tip to tip, and is designed to increase the military's knowledge of reentry style vehicles which can return experiments from space.

Launch of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5-501 rocket with the X-37B a top occurred on time on March 5 at 5:46 p.m. EST, from complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

"Today, we took another important step with the successful launch of the second OTV, enabling the RCO (Rapid Capabilities Office) to further experiment with the vehicle and its ability to operate in low-Earth orbit," the vice president and general manager of Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems Craig Cooning stated today.

"Close teamwork between the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the United Launch Alliance Atlas team, and the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station made this launch a success," Cooning added.

Nearly four minutes into the flight and sixty five miles high, the protective nose fairing separated from the Atlas, exposing the mini space shuttle to the first traces on space.

One minute later the core booster completed it's job and seconds later separated away. The upper stage Centaur engine then ignited seconds later to carry the shuttle to an altitude above 250 miles.

This flight marks the Atlas 5's twenty-fourth launch since it's first flight in 2002; and the 606th Atlas rocket launch since 1957.

It was the second launch attempt after stormy weather canceled Friday's attempt.

Today's attempt was delayed over ninety minutes as technicians replaced a faulty regulator valve which supports helium purge at the launch pad.

Several minutes into the launch, the Air Force sent the public into a news black out as the top secret developmental Orbital Test Vehicle headed into it's initial orbit.

Several of this X-37B's flight details will go beyond the tests of the 224 day first X-37B flight last year. A payload or two will be flown on board the spacecraft.

"We look forward to testing enhancements to the landing profile," X-37B program manager for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office Lt. Col. Troy Giese stated. Giese's office leads the Department of Defense's OTV program.

The spacecraft will settle into an average orbit of between 350-400 statue miles.

ULA performed a fueled mock countdown of the Atlas 5 on February 4.

The Boeing Satellite Systems space plane uses bipropellant thrusters developed by American Pacific Corporation's In-Space Propulsion, and are used for vernier reaction control to achieve orbit; to change it's attitude while on orbit; and to leave orbit.

NASA begun the X-37 project in 1999, however the space agency handed it over to the Arlington, Virginia based DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) five years later.

DARPA, originally formed in 1958 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency, is an office designed to prevent technological surprises against the United States, such as the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957.

The OTV project partnership between the military, DARPA and NASA was announced in October 2006.

The first flight lifted-off last April 22 and flew what the Air Force deemed a successful flight of the unmanned craft. The only known issue was a tire which blew after landing upon runway 12 at Vandenberg, AFB in California.

The vehicle's return home is expected around December 1 with an auto-landing at Vandenberg.

"We may extend the mission to enhance our understanding of the OTV capabilities," Giese added, "especially since the performance data from the first flight suggest that the vehicle could have gone beyond the 270-day requirement."

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