Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Down and Up

X-37 in the hangar after landing. Credit: Boeing/USAF

Last Saturday the US Air Force's super secret (well, not too super secret) X-37 space plane touched down at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California. Although the USAF will not tell us what it's classified mission was, we do know that this fantastic machine has been in space for a year and three months! It's clear to see that the SPace Shuttle is not quite dead yet, as the design lives on in this remarkable spacecraft. Even the heat tiles and structure colors are similar. The tail is a little different... oh, well. This beauty blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida in March 2011 on top of an Atlas 5 rocket (more on that rocket below). During its mission many space fans pondered its purpose and secret mission. Maybe someday we'll find out, but we can reasonably be assured that part of its mission was testing the craft itself in low Earth maneuvers. This is the second X-37 to fly, the first one made a 244-day mission in 2010. That spaceplane will soon be off on another mission.

Blastoff This morning from Cape Canaveral. Credit: ULA

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) sent another classified satellite up into orbit on board an Atlas 5 rocket. This classified mission is designated NROL-38, and some spacewatchers have guessed it may be a communications satellite which will be used to coordinate transmissions from other secret satellites. An educated guess, since there are lots of smart people watching these missions. For me the best part of this mission is that it's the 50th successful launch of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program, or EELV. Besides the Atlas 5, the Delta 4 rocket  has helped to make this series an important NASA transportation system as well as for the Air Force and NRO. The Atlas 5 is calculated to be used for the test launches of the Orion capsule being developed by Lockheed and NASA in a couple of years.

Atlas 5 on the left, Delta 4 on the right.  Credit: ULA.

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