This week’s planned launch will mark the fifth trip into space for the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane. Each trip up is getting longer. Each one with a hint of mystery around it. The last one spent 717 days and change orbiting Earth.
9/7/17 UPDATE: Smooth flying and another perfect landing. Launch starts at 19:56 in the video below. First stage landing at 28:08.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the space plane, but we do know some of the experiments that go up with it. Last flight, a Hall-effect thruster (ion thruster) from Rocketdyne was tested. Along with a NASA experiment testing various materials in space.
Last week, the Air Force did reveal one of the experiments going up for this flight. “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,” says a press release.
Several small satellites will also be hitching a ride to space aboard the X-37B. But we’ll never know the complete payload.
The X-37B is just over 29 feet long with a wingspan of nearly 15 feet. It clocks in at five tons at launch and has a payload bay that’s about the size of an average pickup truck’s bed.
While it will be the space plane’s fifth mission, there is one big first this go around. SpaceX is handling the launch. Tomorrow’s scheduled launch will be the first X-37B flight not atop an Atlas V rocket. A Falcon 9 will push the space plane into a higher inclination than previous orbits.
Watch the X-37B get prepped for launch.
Weather is making the headlines thanks to Hurricane Irma. Tomorrow, Irma will be about 950 miles southeast of the launch pad. But its effects will not be felt for tomorrow’s launch.
The 45th Weather Squadron puts launch probability at 50%. Cumulus clouds are the biggest concern. But these clouds aren’t from Hurricane Irma. A frontal boundary will be responsible for the thick clouds tomorrow. Launch probability improves to 60% on Friday with cumulus clouds rearing their head again along with liftoff winds.
Liftoff is currently set for sometime late tomorrow morning. I’ve seen 9:20 am EDT floating around, but can’t find solid confirmation. A first-stage landing is also planned with it coming back to solid ground at LZ-1.
Don’t expect a livestream following the X-37B deployment, though. We’ll see it go up and then the live feeds will cut to the first-stage landing.
The webcast will probably be a lot like the NROL-76 launch from May, which delivered stunning images of the first stage coming back to Earth.
I’ll update this post once a firm launch time is set, and with a livestream link.