After a delay, the Air Force X-37B spaceplane finally launches towards its secret mission aboard the Atlas 5 rocket.
The spaceplane was launched from the Cape Canaveral facility in Florida. Despite the media coverage of the launch, much of the spaceplane’s mission is still unknown.
The powerful Atlas 5 rocket
Powering the spaceplane into space is the powerful Atlas 5 rocket. At its core is the Russian-made RD-180 first-stage engine. The launch took place from Cape Canaveral’s complex 41 facility.
The Atlas 5 rocket is capable of producing more than 860,000 of thrust. The rocket quickly gains speed as it burns its propellant and loses weight.
More than four minutes after the lift-off, the first stage of the rocket detaches and safely falls back to Earth. This recent launch is the 90th flight using the RD-180 engine.
The first five flights of #X37B totaled 2,865 days on-orbit and more than one billion miles traveled. Its sixth autonomous mission will help @USNRL transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy. #USSF7 pic.twitter.com/Pl6i1KnR1e
— Boeing Space (@BoeingSpace) May 16, 2020
Abiding with the United Launch Alliance standards, the launch commentary ends after the first stage detaches. The rest of the launch was not covered by any media and continues with complete secrecy.
Airforce X-37B spaceplane
The main goal of the recent Atlas 5 launch is to put the X-37B spaceplane into orbit. It is one of the two spaceplane operated by the newly established United States Space Force. To be more specific, the operation is under the guidance of the Rapid Capabilities Office of the Pentagon.
The U.S. Space Force assigns the task of designing the X-37B to Boeing. The spaceplane looks like a small space shuttle. It features a delta wings design, complete with heat shields and a compact bay to carry its payload.
However, unlike the space shuttle that uses fuel cells to maintain its orbit, the X-37B uses solar arrays. The solar arrays extend from the plane’s payload bay. By using these solar arrays, the X-37B can essentially extend its flight well compare to the traditional space shuttle.
The X-37B is a completely autonomous plane. It is capable of returning back to Earth using specialized landing runways located at the Vandeberg Air Force Base in California. It can also utilize runways from the Kennedy Space Center located in Florida.
Despite the secrecy surrounding it, the X-37B is an extremely prolific space plane. The last X-37B flight took more than 780 days. The flight ends with the space plan landing at a Florida runway in October last year.
The recent Atlas 5 launch delay also push the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket to a later date. The Falcon 9 rocket will carry a new batch of Starlink internet relay satellite into space.
Image courtesy of Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock