Experimental U.S. Air Force space plane breaks previous record for orbital spaceflight – gpgmail


The Boeing-built X-37B space plane commissioned and operated by the U.S. Air Force has now broken its own record for time spent in space. Its latest mission has lasted 719 days as of today, which is one day longer than its last mission which ended in 2017, as noted by Space.com. It’s not an overall record, since geocommunications satellites typically have life spans of five years or more, but it’s nonetheless an impressive milestone for this secretive Air Force vehicle, which is all about testing and developing U.S. technologies related to reusable spaceflight and more.

The X-37B began its current mission in September 2018, when it launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The specific details of the spacecraft’s missions are classified, but in addition to apparently spending ever increasing amounts of time up in space (each successive mission of the space plane has lasted longer), it’s also “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” These tests involve tech related to guidance, navigation, thermal protection, high-temperature materials and durability, flight and propulsion systems and more, which is basically not saying much since that’s just everything involved in space flight.

There’s no crew on board operating X-37-B, but the vehicle can autonomously descend back through Earth’s atmosphere and land horizontally on a runway, just like the NASA Space Shuttle used to do when it was in operation.

The X-37 program got kicked off in 1997, originally began by NASA, and it was then transferred to DARPA and the U.S. Air Force after that. The X-37B has flown four times, and in total, the first four missions added up to 2,085 days spent in space.


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SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA and Northrop Grumman bid for US national security launch contract – gpgmail


The U.S. Air Force is looking to lock in its launch providers for national security satellite missions to take place between 2022 and 2026, and the bids for this so-called “Phase 2” procurement contract are now in. The field of competitors looking to become one of the two companies chosen is a who’s who of U.S. commercial launch providers at the moment, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA and Northrop Grumman.

Both Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin are new entrants in this particular launch contracting area, while SpaceX and ULA are existing providers that handle U.S. national security missions. SpaceX additionally has a bit of a head start, since its Falcon rockets are the only proven, certified launch vehicles included in the bids submitted, while ULA has offered up its new Vulcan Centaur, which is tailor-made for the job but not yet certified and flight-proven; the others are still seeking certification.

“SpaceX means to serve as the Air Force’s long-term provider for space launch, offering existing, certified and proven launch systems capable of carrying out the full spectrum of national security space launch missions and requirements,” said SpaceX COO and president Gwynne Shotwell in an emailed statement, regarding this new bid.

SpaceX clearly sees its Falcon launch system as a key competitive advantage, as it’s flying currently for USAF and national security missions — the company says that this represents the lowest risk for the government overall in terms of providers for this mission, and with known costs, as well.

The Air Force will make its final selection about the two winning providers in 2020.


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ULA successfully launches fifth US Air Force-protected communications satellite – gpgmail


The United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint-effort commercial launch service provider set up by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, succeeded in launching a U.S. Air Force communications satellite to orbit today, the fifth in a series of launches to form a constellation. The satellite, code-named AEHF-5 (for the fifth “Advanced Extremely High Frequency” spacecraft) is already communicating with USAF on the ground, indicating full mission success.

For ULA, this is another win in an unbroken streak – it’s the 90th Atlas V launch to date, with 100% success across all those launches. The launch took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 6:13 AM ET this morning, marking the second successful launch from the Cape this week (SpaceX launched the AMOS-17 satellite earlier this week).

The Atlas V for this mission was flying in what ULA terms “551” configuration, which means that it’s equipped with five solid rocket boosters surrounding its liquid-fueled center core booster. This is the configuration that provides Atlas V with the most lift and payload capacity, which was necessary in this case because of the weight of the AEHF-5 satellite at nearly 14,000 lbs., combined with its target orbit.

Lockheed Martin built the AEHF-5 for the Air Force, and confirmed via email this afternoon that it not only achieved geostationary transfer orbit but is responding as planned to the USAF’s 4th Space Operations Squadron. The company has built all five current active AEHF satellites in operation, and is currently working on the sixth, which should launch sometime next year if all goes to plan.


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