Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Launch Notification: OTV2 (USA 226)

Courtesy of AGI's Launch Notification e-mails. AGI's E-mails are sent after every launch and include key spacecraft information such as: the date, time, launch site, launcher, international number, name, and owner. Get more information on thousands of satellites and other vehicles by viewing STK models, animations, and our encyclopedic "Spacecraft Digest" database at www.agi.com/scdigest.

New Launch: 2011 March 5, 2246 UTC
Site: Air Force Eastern Test Range, Florida, USA
Launcher: Atlas V
International Designator(s): 2011-010A

SSC Name Owner
37375 OTV 2 (USA 226) US

"Shot into orbit Saturday by a gleaming white and gold Atlas 5 rocket, the U.S. Air Force's second top secret X-37B space plane will push the boundaries of the craft's design and could stay in orbit longer than its predecessor, according to military officials.

"The military isn't divulging what the space plane carries, but it could be shepherding high-tech Air Force experiments, spy sensors and other research payloads."

"Saturday's launch began the second mission of the X-37B, and the Air Force plans to build upon almost eight months of flight experience with a nearly identical craft in 2010.

"Also called the Orbital Test Vehicle, the program is managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, a division headquartered in the Pentagon. But the X-37's genesis is from NASA. The space agency still provides engineering support for the space plane's thermal protection system.

"The spokesperson said early post-flight analysis of the first X-37B vehicle indicates it could have stayed in space beyond the craft's 270-day design life. That knowledge could compel managers to keep OTV 2 in orbit longer."

"The covert space plane blasted off inside the Atlas rocket's pointy 17-foot [5.2-m] diameter nose cone at 5:46 p.m. EST (2246 GMT). The 20-story rocket let out a deep rumble as it streaked away from Florida's Space Coast into a clear blue sky, disappearing from view about four minutes into flight.

"The Atlas first stage's Russian main engine accelerated the rocket to the edge of space in four-and-a-half minutes, before turning off and giving way to a hydrogen-fueled RL10 engine on the rocket's Centaur upper stage.

"The military stopped releasing real-time updates on the mission when the upper stage engine shut down, but the Air Force and United Launch Alliance, the Atlas rocket's builder and operator, announced the flight was a success."

"Resembling a miniature space shuttle orbiter, the 29-foot [8.8-m]-long stubby-winged ship is hauling classified cargo inside a payload bay no bigger than the bed of a pickup truck. After launch, the space plane is programmed to open its clamshell-like cargo bay doors and deploy a solar panel to charge its batteries.

"The X-37's cost and specific mission are top secret, but military officials proudly boast of the space plane's ability to return experiments from space."

"With a powerful main engine, a renewable energy source and electromechanical control surfaces, the 11,000-pound [5,000-kg] spacecraft can stay in orbit much longer than NASA's space shuttle orbiters. But its cargo capacity is just a fraction of the shuttle's lift ability, limiting the X-37's potential use in launching or retrieving satellites.

"But the X-37B could still test spy satellite technology and do other research. And its engine has enough thrust and fuel to chase down other satellites in orbit, yielding some analysts to predict the space plane could rendezvous with another spacecraft and take pictures of it.

"Seasoned satellite observers don't believe there was any such in-orbit rendezvous on the X-37's first mission, which spanned nearly eight months from launch through landing Dec. 3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

"The craft could also ferry into orbit materials science payloads, experimental reconnaissance sensors, innovative communications instruments, navigation technologies, or a variety of other potential cargo."