ULA Atlas V Rocket Lifts Off with U.S. Space Force’s X-37B Spaceplane

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:14 a.m. EDT (1314 UTC) on May 17 with the U.S. Space Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) spaceplane.

The mission, designated USSF-7, marked the sixth flight of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6). The launch was initially planned on May 16 but was scrubbed due to inclement weather conditions.

Atlas V USSF-7 Launch
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket lifts off with U.S. Space Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) for the USSF-7 mission from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 9:14 a.m. EDT (1314 UTC) on May 17, 2020. ULA Photo.

The X-37B OTV is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. military. The primary objectives of the X-37B include reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to and examined on Earth.

Along with OTV-6, the mission will deploy FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to conduct experiments on orbit. The mission also carries two NASA experiments, including a material sample plate to determine the results of radiation and other space effects on various materials. Another NASA experiment will assess the space effects on seeds used to grow food. Another experiment sponsored the Naval Research Laboratory will examine the ability to transform solar power into radiofrequency microwave energy which could be transmitted to the ground.

An Atlas V 501 configuration rocket, which includes a 5-meter-diameter payload fairing, launched the USSF-7 mission. The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The USSF-7 mission is the 139th mission for ULA. This is also the 84th launch of an Atlas V rocket and the seventh launch of the 501 configuration. The Atlas V 501 has been used exclusively for national security missions.

The mission is the second dedicated mission for the newly-established U.S. Space Force with the first one being the launch of the AEHF-6 military communications satellite abroad an Atlas V 551 configuration rocket.

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), is a reusable and unmanned spacecraft originally managed by the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (now the newly established U.S. Space Force).

Built by Boeing’s Phantom Works division, each spaceship has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.5 meters) and a length of more than 29 feet (8.9 meters), and is a 120%-scaled derivative of the earlier Boeing X-40. The spacecraft is boosted into space by a launch vehicle, then re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and lands as a spaceplane after completing its mission in the orbit.

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV)
Boeing X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). Boeing Photo.

Most of the activities of the X-37B project are secret. The official Air Force statement was that the project is “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform”.

The two operational X-37B spaceplanes have completed five orbital missions and have spent a combined 2,865 days (7.85 years) in space.

The fifth mission of X-37B (OTV-5) was completed in October last year when the spaceplane successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida. During OTV-5, designated USA-277 in orbit, the X-37B conducted on-orbit experiments for 780 days breaking its own record by being in orbit for more than two years. The spaceplane was originally designed for an on-orbit duration of 270 days.

The fifth mission was launched on Sept. 7, 2017, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on-board a Space X Falcon 9 rocket. The first four missions were launched aboard ULA Atlas V rockets.



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