Falcon 9 to Launch the Secret U.S.A.F. X-37B (OTV-5)

Images credit & copyright: SpaceX. Live streaming links and mission information at the bottom. Check back for updates.

LAUNCH ALERT! Thursday, September 7, 2017 at 09:50 EDT (13:50 UTC), a SpaceX Falcon 9 (core 1040.1) will rise from NASA’s legendary Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) to deliver the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane into orbit as part of Orbital Test Vehicle 5 (OTV-5) or USA-277).

This will be SpaceX’s 13th launch of 2017, 41st Falcon 9 flight overall and the parameters of this mission will allow for a Return To Landing Site (RTLS) where the first stage of the Falcon 9 will return to, and land back at Cape Canaveral at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) (former LC-13) allowing them to forego landing on their East Coast Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) or losing the booster to the sea.  If successful this will be SpaceX’s 16th landing overall; 9 on drone ships and 7 on land.

Boeing Phantom Works X-37B Space Plane: The X-37 program roots go as far back as the Boeing X-40A in the 1990’s. The X-40A was an 82% scale mockup of the X-37 “Future-X” to test flight systems.  Only one was ever built and it was used by NASA and the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL).  All seven free flights occurred at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, with the first coming on August 11, 1998 by a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter while subsequent tests used a CH-47 Chinook.  If you’re wondering, today the X-40A can be found at the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

In the early to mid-2000’s NASA/DARPA contracted Boeing’s Phantom Works to create the X-37A known as the Approach and Landing Test Vehicle (ALTV); a full sized glider for captive and free flight drop tests from Scaled Composite’s White Knight aircraft from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, CA.  The X-37A’s first captive carry flight occurred on June 21, 2005  and the first free flight occurred on April 7, 2006 but upon landing, the X-37A overran the runway and sustained minor damage.  The program was then moved to the legendary Plant 42 in Palmdale, CA where White Knight continued to fly the X-37A five more times with two free flights on August 18, 2006 and September 26, 2006 for a total of 11 flights; 8 captive and three free.  NOTE: The original contract had the X-37A slated as an orbital vehicle that was to be delivered into orbit by the Space Transportation System (STS) aka, the Space Shuttle but that entire concept was scrapped.

In November of 2006 the USAF announced that they would continue the X-37 program with the development of the X-37B to be used for “risk reduction, experimentation and operational concept development for reusable space vehicle technologies in support of long-term developmental space objectives.”  The X-37B was originally supposed to ride into orbit on Shuttle as well but that plan fell through after the STS-107 Columbia disaster.  There are two X-37B’s and there have been four flights to date with each OTV making two trips.  I don’t know what the turnaround time is in regard to processing and reuse but it’s reasonable to assume this week’s OTV-5 mission will be the third flight of X-37B No. 1.

X-37B Mission Data:

Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1) also designated USA-212: X-37B No 1. launched on April 22, 2010 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Space Launch Complex-41 on a ULA Atlas V-501 rocket designated (AV-012).  The mission lasted 224 days, 9 hours, 24 minutes before touching down at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, Runway 12, on December 3, 2010.

Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) also designated USA-226: X-37B No 2. launched on March 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Space Launch Complex-41 on a ULA Atlas V-501 rocket designated (AV-026).  The mission lasted 468 days, 13 hours, 2 minutes before touching down at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, Runway 12, on June 16, 2012.

Orbital Test Vehicle 3 (OTV-3) also designated USA-240: X-37B No 1. launched for the second time on December 11, 2012 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Space Launch Complex-41 on a ULA Atlas V-501 rocket designated (AV-034).  The mission lasted 674 days, 22 hours before touching down at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, Runway 12, on October 17, 2014.

Orbital Test Vehicle 4 (OTV-4) also designated AFSPC-5 and USA-261: X-37B No 2. launched for the second time on May 20, 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Space Launch Complex-41 on a ULA Atlas V-501 rocket designated (AV-054).  The mission lasted 717 days, 20 hours before touching down at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF), Runway 15/33, on May 7, 2017.

Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS): Were built at the Conrad Shipyard in Morgan City, Louisiana, the same place that NASA’s Pegasus barge was refitted to support the SLS program. Pegasus carried lots of equipment throughout the years but most famously the space shuttle external fuel tanks from NASA’s Michaud Plant in Louisiana to KSC.

SpaceX’s barges are 300 by 100 ft. with “wings” that extend that width to 170 ft. It has also been fitted with thrusters repurposed from deep sea oil rigs that are able to hold balance and position to within 3 meters even in storm conditions. ASDS’s are painted black with the SpaceX “X” logo, a yellow inner ring and outer white ring acting as a bull eye. The East Coast ASDS is “Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY)” and the West Coast’s ship is “Just Read The Instructions (JRTI).”

In total there have been three ASDS’s. The first of which was Marmac 300, a deck barge named “Just Read The Instructions (JRTI).” That ASDS was used for two east coast landing attempts (CRS 5 & 6), deconstructed and retired. East Coast duties were then transferred to Marmac 304 named “Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY).” A third ASDS, Marmac 303 was constructed and stationed on the West Coast where it fields launches from Vandenberg AFB, CA. Its name, “Just Read The Instructions (JRTI).”

These fun yet odd names come from Scottish Sci-fi legend Iain Banks’s “Culture” series of 10 novels. They are spacecraft known as General Contact Units (GCU’s) from the novel “Player of Games.” Other spacecraft in the series (which get to name themselves) are even more entertaining such as “Size Isn’t Everything,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “Death and Gravity.” Here’s a fun Wiki page with more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_in_the_Culture_series

The Rocket: The greatly improved Falcon 9R FT rocket is a 2-stage partially reusable rocket with future ambitions of becoming fully reusable. The new version is 3.7 m (12 ft.) in diameter and 70 m (229.6 ft.) tall which is about 1.6 m (5.6 ft.) taller than the Falcon 9 v1.1 or “Block 2” in order to house a higher volume fuel tank. It is also fitted with upgraded Merlin family main engines. They have replaced the 9 Merlin-1D (and before them were the 1C engines), with the more powerful Merlin-1D+ engines that will provide a thrust of nearly 694,000kg (1.53 million lb.) at sea level. Each Merlin-1D+ provides 180,000 lb. (81,600 kg) of thrust at sea level, which equates to roughly a 20% increase in overall performance. If you add that with the new process of densifying the fuel and improving the overall airframe, the total gain in performance is about 33%.

Dragon Spacecraft (when in use) = The Dragon spacecraft is about 23.6 ft. (7.2 m) tall with trunk attached and 12 ft. (3.7 m) wide. It’s comprised of two main sections; the pressurized cargo area which can carry 388 cubic ft. of cargo as well as the unpressurized cargo area. The trunk (unpressurized area) carries 494 cubic ft. of cargo as well as the solar arrays. OR: Main Composite Payload Fairing (when in use) = the composite payload fairing is 13.1 meters (43ft) in length and 5.2 meter (17ft) in diameter. Dragon, along with Russia’s Progress & Soyuz, Europe’s (ESA) Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Orbital ATK’s Cygnus and Japan’s (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), is one of only six vehicles that can fly to the Space Station. While Russia’s Soyuz is currently the only crewed means of reaching and returning from Station, SpaceX’s Dragon is currently the only means of returning experiments and supplies back to Earth from Station.

Second Stage: Powered by a single Merlin-1D+ Vacuum engine with aluminum-lithium alloy tanks fueled by liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (LOX/RP-1). The Merlin 1D+ are basically the same Merlin-1D engines used previously but instead of utilizing them at only 80%, they will now be operating at 100%. This stage can be restarted multiple times to place multiple payloads into desired orbits. For maximum reliability, the second stage has redundant igniter systems and has a burn time of 375 seconds.

Interstage: a composite structure that connects the first stage to the second stage and holds the release and separation system. Its al all pneumatic stage separation system for low shock, highly reliable separation that can be tested on the ground, unlike pyrotechnic systems used on most launch vehicles.

Core/Boost Stage is powered by nine (9) Merlin-1D+ engines in their circular “octaweb” configuration with aluminum-lithium alloy tanks fueled by liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene (LOX/RP-1). The Merlin 1D+ engines are basically the same Merlin-1D engines used previously but instead of utilizing them at only 80%, they will now be operating at 100%. The core stage has a burn time of 180 seconds and is gradually throttled. Its 9 Merlin-1D+ engine system can sustain up to two engine shutdowns during flight and still successfully complete its mission.

The first stage is fitted with four independently steerable titanium grid fins that help control pitch, yaw and roll during vertical decent. It’s also fitted with four landing legs that will extend before touchdown.

Watch Live:

SpaceX Webcast: http://www.spacex.com/webcast/

SpaceX YouTube (Hosted Webcast): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9M6Zvi-fFv4

SpaceX YouTube (Technical Webcast): May not be one.

SpaceX Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SpaceX

OYV-5 Mission Info:

45th Space Wing L-1 Weather Forecast: http://www.patrick.af.mil/About-Us/Weather

SpaceX OTV-5 Press Kit: http://www.spacex.com/news/2017/09/06/otv-5-mission-press-kit

OTV-5 Launch Campaign (Reddit):  https://www.reddit.com/r/spacex/comments/6u6q1t/x37b_otv5_launch_campaign_thread/

General 2017 Launch List (Wiki): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_in_spaceflight

Boeing Phantom Works/USAF X-37B:

USAF X-37B page: http://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104539/x-37b-orbital-test-vehicle/

Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_X-37

SpaceX:

SpaceX: http://www.spacex.com/

Elon Musk Twitter: https://twitter.com/elonmusk

Elon Musk Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/elonmusk

SpaceX Twitter: https://twitter.com/SpaceX

SpaceX Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SpaceX

SpaceX Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/spacex

SpaceX YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/spacexchannel

SpaceX Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/+SpaceX

SpaceX Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/spacexphotos

Falcon 9 Family & Random SpaceX 411:

SpaceX Falcon 9: http://www.spacex.com/falcon9

SpaceX Falcon Heavy: http://www.spacex.com/falcon-heavy

SpaceX Falcon 9 (Wiki): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_9

SpaceX launches (Wiki): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Falcon_9_and_Falcon_Heavy_launches

SpaceX booster landing attempts (Wiki): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_9_booster_controlled-descent_and_landing_tests

Falcon 9 core (booster) serial numbers: https://www.reddit.com/r/spacex/wiki/cores

SpaceX Stats: https://spacexstats.com/

SpaceX Now: https://spacexnow.com/

Launch Complex-39A (LC-39A):

NASA Launch Complex 39 (LC-39): https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/launch/launch-complex39-toc.html

Heroicrelics Launch Complex 39 (LC-39): http://heroicrelics.org/info/lc-39/lc-39-abcd.html

Wiki Launch Complex 39 (LC-39): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kennedy_Space_Center_Launch_Complex_39

Patrick AFB: 45th Space Wing, Cape Canaveral, Florida:

Main Site: http://www.patrick.af.mil/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/45thSpaceWing

Facebook http://www.facebook.com/45thSpaceWing

Peterson AFB, U.S. Air Force Space Command, Colorado:

Website: http://www.afspc.af.mil/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AFSpace

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AirForceSpaceCommand

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/airforcespacecommand

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