On May 20, 2015, United Launch Alliance (ULA) conducted successful launch of Atlas V 501 with the US Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle and number of secondary payloads within AFSPC-5 (Air Force Space Command) mission from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Following primary spacecraft (X-37B) separation, Centaur upper stage changed altitude and inclination in order to release the Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite (ULTRASat). ULTRASat spacecraft consists of eight Poly-Pico Orbital Deployers (P-PODs) that contain 10 CubeSats sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the US Air Force. Although having military nature, X-37B has following primary objectives that can be used in civil applications in future: reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.
The OTV is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Basing on NASA's X-37 design and weighting near 5 tons, the Boeing-made unmanned OTV is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space technology experimentation and testing. Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway.
“ULA is honored to launch this unique spacecraft for the U.S Air Force. Congratulations to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch! The seamless integration between the Air Force, Boeing, and the entire mission team culminated in today’s successful launch of the AFSPC-5 mission” Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs
It is known that NASA uses this OTV mission to fly the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation that will give scientists an opportunity to expose almost 100 different materials samples to space environment for more than 200 days. METIS is building on data acquired during Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), which flew more than 4,000 samples in space from 2001 to 2013.
This is the fourth mission of X-37B vehicle. OTV-1 (first flight of Vehicle No. 1) was launched on April 22, 2010, and landed on December 3, 2010 (duration 224 days). OTV-2 (first flight of Vehicle No. 2) was launched on March 5, 2011, and landed on June 16, 2012 (duration 469 days). OTV-3 (second flight of Vehicle No. 1) was launched on December 11, 2012, and landed on October. 17, 2014 (duration 675 days). US Air Force does not disclose the duration of this mission - second flight of Vehicle No. 2
This latest OTV-4 mission comes amid work to convert two former Space Shuttle hangars at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) into the X-37B processing halls. However, it is not known whether this OTV-4 X-37B vehicle was readied for flight at KSC, or not.
As it was mentioned above, Atlas V launched not only X-37B, but also ULTRASat spacecraft containing 10 CubeSats for NRO and NASA. Their brief description is below:
- USS Langley – a 3U CubeSat with a primary objective to demonstrate the ability to host a web server on a CubeSat, which will utilize common TCP/IP internet protocol accessible to any internet user.
- BRICSat-P – a 1.5U CubeSat standing for Ballistically Reinforced Communication Satellite – Propulsion Test Unit. Its primary mission is to characterize the performance of miniature plasma thrusters, developed in George Washington University, in space environment.
- Psat - a 1.5U CubeSat standing for ParkinsonSat. Its primary mission is a communications payload with two transponders.
- GEARRS – a 3U CubeSat standing for Globalstar Evaluation And Risk Reduction Spacecraft. Its primary mission is to demonstrate the use of Globalstar constellation as a path for near continuous command and control of low-earth orbit space vehicles.
- AeroCube-8 – two 1.5U CubeSats with primary mission to demonstrate NRO-funded R&D products in space. It is a multifaceted technology demonstration mission for novel Carbon Nanotube and Scalable ion Electrospray Propulsion system.
- Optical CubeSat - three 3U CubeSats to provide on-orbit targets for ground assets to calibrate sensors for orbital debris studies and small-object tracking improvements.
- Lightsail-A – a 3U CubeSat and the only hosted satellite sponsored by NASA, not NRO. It is a privately developed solar sail project conceived and led by the Planetary Society. Designed to demonstrate the viability of using solar sailing for propulsion on a small spacecraft, LightSail is embarking on two missions: this shakedown cruise designed to test out the spacecraft's systems and a full-fledged solar sailing flight in 2016.
This mission is the 5th Atlas V launch in 501 configuration, where '5' means a 5-meter-diameter payload fairing, '0' stands for no solid boosters at the first stage, powered only by two Russian-made RD-180 engines, and '1' is for a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine that powers Centaur upper stage.
AFSPC-5 mission also was the 3rd Atlas V launch in 2015 after Magnetospheric Multiscale mission on March 13, and MUOS-3 mission on January 21. This was the 54th Atlas V launch since the vehicle's inaugural mission in 2002 and ULA's 96th mission since the company was founded in 2006.
ULA's next launch is Atlas V GPS IIF-10 mission for the US Air Force, scheduled for July 15 from Space Launch Complex-41 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.