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X-37 space plane begins shadowy orbital mission

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched a Boeing-built X-37B space plane today on a semi-secret orbital mission under the management of the recently created Space Force.

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Space Force X-37B mission to test power beaming

X-37B space plane
The Pentagon’s X-37B space plane is encapsulated within the payload fairing of its Atlas 5 launch vehicle. (Boeing Photo)

When a Boeing-built X-37B space plane is sent into orbit this month for the test program’s sixth flight, it will try out a technology that’s been more than a decade in the making: space-based solar power.

An experiment designed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will transform solar power into a microwave beam, potentially for transmission to the ground. If such a power-beaming system could be perfected, concentrated microwave energy from space could conceivably be converted to electricity for far-flung military outposts.

Back in 2007, the Pentagon issued a report saying the U.S. military could be an “anchor tenant customer” for space-based power generation systems. That report piggybacked on a NASA study that was written a decade earlier, assessing the feasibility of wireless power transmission from space.

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X-37B space plane lands after 780 days in orbit

X-37B landing
The Air Force’s X-37B space plane lands at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Air Force Photo)

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane landed today after spending a record-setting 780 days in orbit testing hush-hush technologies for long-duration spaceflight.

Touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida came at 3:51 a.m. ET (12:51 a.m. PT), the Air Force said in a statement. The landing marked the end of the fifth test mission for the uncrewed mini-space shuttle, which experts say appears to be part of an effort to develop more versatile, faster-acting and longer-running spacecraft for remote sensing and satellite deployment.

“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in today’s statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”

Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said the X-37B “successfully completed all mission objectives.”

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SpaceX launches Air Force X-37B space plane

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, sending the Air Force’s X-37B space plane into space. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX launched the Air Force’s X-37B robotic space plane on its latest months-long, classified mission today – marking another first for the company, with an oncoming hurricane adding to the pressure.

Evacuations in advance of Hurricane Irma’s Florida landfall have already begun, but SpaceX managed to get its Falcon 9 rocket launched, and its first-stage booster landed, at the end of a smooth countdown.

“Everything proceeded nominally,” SpaceX launch commentator Michael Hammersley said. “Weather was looking potentially a bit tricky with those clouds, but ended up being a ‘go.’”

The Falcon 9 rose from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10 a.m. ET (7 a.m. PT), sending the X-37B spaceward for the fifth mission of the test program. The four earlier launches were executed using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket.

In a tweet, Gen. Jay Raymond, who heads the Air Force Space Command, said the launch was a success.

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Secret space plane lands after 2-year mission

Workers in protective suits check out the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehcile after its touchdown at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

After nearly two years in orbit, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B robotic space plane landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida today with a loud sonic boom, but nary a word about what exactly it was doing up there all this time.

This was the fourth and longest classified mission for the Boeing-built craft, which was launched from Florida 718 days earlier in 2015 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The three earlier missions were flown in 2010, 2011-2012 and 2012-2014, with landings at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The Air Force’s fleet of X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles has now spent a total of 2,085 days to gauge the reusable winged plane’s ability to conduct on-orbit operations and return for airplane-style horizontal landings.

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