ULA Rolls Out Atlas V Rocket Ahead of X-37B Spaceplane Mission

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has rolled out its Atlas V rocket in preparation for the launch of the U.S. Space Force (USSF)’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) spaceplane.

During the rollout, the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) carrying the 197-foot-tall rocket along with the payload arrived at the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 from its assembly building, the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF). The transfer covered a distance of one-third-of-a-mile and position the rocket on the pad for the sixth X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) mission.

The 183-foot-tall MLP traveled to the pad with the help of undercarriage railcars and track mobile machines that push the entire 1.4-million-pound platform and rocket along tracks up the hill to the pad. The VIF is a 30-story building where the rocket stages and payload were put together for this mission aboard the MLP.

The seven-hour launch countdown for the mission, designated USSF-7, will begin Saturday morning, leading to liftoff at 8:24 a.m. EDT (1224 UTC).

Conducting the USSF-7 launch with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle was deemed critical to perform during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Personnel involved in the launch are following health guidelines such as wearing face coverings, adhering to physical distancing while on console and using virtual connections when possible.

This will be the 84th flight of the Atlas V and the seventh to fly in its 501 configuration with a five-meter payload fairing, no solid rocket boosters and a single RL10C-1 engine on the Centaur upper stage. The Atlas V rocket has been entrusted with four previous launches of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, starting with the maiden launch in 2010.

The X-37B experimental test program demonstrates technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high-temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.

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.

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.

U.S. Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle
The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Oct. 27, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Courtesy photo)

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