Wednesday, 13 May 2020

[UPDATED] OTV 6 (USSF 7), the next X-37B launch, appears to go into a 44-degree inclined orbit

OTV 6.  Image: US Air Force. Click to enlarge

If weather cooperates, the next X-37B launch, mission OTV 6 ,also known as launch USSF 7, is slated for May 16, with backup dates on May 17 and 18 in case launch is postponed. The small uncrewed space plane will be launched for the US Air Force by the United Launch Alliance, with an Atlas 5 rocket, from Cape Canaveral SLC-41.

Navigational Warnings have now appeared for this launch, which shed light on the launch window and the orbit aimed for:

   161224Z TO 161453Z MAY, ALTERNATE
   171314Z TO 171532Z AND 181354Z TO 181434Z MAY
   A. 28-36-51N 080-35-57W, 28-41-00N 080-26-00W,
      28-36-00N 080-23-00W, 28-31-36N 080-33-34W.
   B. 32-28-00N 075-12-00W, 33-50-00N 072-51-00W,
      33-08-00N 072-17-00W, 31-45-00N 074-41-00W.
   C. 38-43-00N 062-38-00W, 40-23-00N 058-26-00W,
      39-18-00N 057-47-00W, 37-34-00N 061-56-00W.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 181534Z MAY 20.//

HYDROPAC 1415/20(74,75).
DNC 03, DNC 04.
   161319Z TO 161528Z MAY, ALTERNATE
   171409Z TO 171607Z AND 181449Z TO 181509Z MAY
   36-03S 096-54E, 33-40S 098-30E,
   37-32S 108-22E, 40-03S 107-00E.
2. CANCEL THIS MSG 181609Z MAY 20.//

The launch azimuth defined by the three launch hazard areas A, B and C in the Atlantic Ocean and the location of the Centaur upper stage deorbit zone in the Indian Ocean, point to a launch into a ~44-degree inclined orbit, give or take half a degree. The Centaur upper stage will be deorbitted about half a revolution (55 minutes) after launch.

The following map depicts the hazard areas and the trajectory of the first orbit, for a 44-degree inclined orbit and an orbital altitude of ~350 km. The latter orbit fits the locations of the hazard zones well, and the ~55 minutes time difference between the start of the launch windows and the start of the Centaur upper stage deorbit windows in the Navigational Warnings combined with the position of the deorbit zone, fits a ~350 km altitude orbit:

Click map to enlarge

Launch into a 44-degree inclined orbit unfortunately means I do not get to track it from the Netherlands, as my observing location is too high north in latitude to see it in such an orbit. Following the previous OTV 5 launch, that went into a 54.5 degree inclined orbit and could be well observed from the Netherlands, I had some hopes for OTV 6, but alas no, it is not to be apparently...

A 44-degree orbital inclination would be similar to mission OTV 3 from 2012-2014. These are the orbital inclinations of all past OTV missions:

Mission     inclination    operational period        flight duration
OTV 1       40.0o          22/04/2010 - 30/11/2010   224 days
OTV 2       42.8o          05/03/2011 - 16/06/2012   468 days
OTV 3       43.5o          25/10/2012 - 17/10/2014   675 days
OTV 4       38.0o          20/05/2015 - 07/05/2017   718 days
OTV 5       54.5o          07/09/2017 - 27/10/2019   780 days
OTV 6       44.0o ?        16/05/2020 - ?

With regard to the upcoming launch, the given launch windows for May 16 and the two backup dates are curious. These launch windows are not the same duration (May 16 is 2h 29m in duration; May 17 is 2h 18m in duration; and May 18 only 40 minutes in duration).  They shift oddly from date to date too. The start of the given windows shifts 50 minutes between May 16 and 17; and shifts 40 minutes between May 17 and 18. It moreover shift to a later time between consecutive dates: while a given targetted orbital plane would make the launch shift to an earlier time, not a later time

Perhaps this is done to obfuscate the launch time and RAAN aimed for (or maybe it is just simply Range availability at play). If we look at the common ground: all three launch windows have a potential 10-degree wide RAAN window between 331o.14 and 341o.17 in common, so perhaps that is what is aimed for. If that interpretation is correct, this would lead to the following potential 40-minute launch windows, shifting back by 4 minutes each day:

16 May     13:58 - 14:38 UT
17 May     13:54 - 14:34 UT
18 May     13:50 - 14:30 UT

But of course, it is always possible that they launch straight away at the 12:24 UT opening of the May 16 window...we will see!

[Edit 15 May 2020 23:20 UT: but see note at end of post!]

A lot has been written about the X-37B and its purpose, and there are a lot of persistent misconceptions regarding the fact that it is a "space plane" (see my blogpost "X-37B fact and fiction" from July 2019).

Far from being a nefarious device, the X-37B appears to be a testbed for experimental space technology. According to the US Space Force, one of the things that will be tested during the next OTV 6 mission is an experiment to transmit solar power by microwave. It will also contain two NASA experiments that study the effects of radiation on materials and seeds, and it will deploy at least one military cubesat, FalconSat 8 (the previous OTV mission, OTV 5, released three cubesats).

The US Space Force Press Release also indicates that, as a first, OTV 6 will be fitted with a "service module" to the aft of the vehicle, that will house experiments (previous OTV missions housed experiments in the cargo bay). It will be interesting to see what happens to this service module at the end of the mission.

Addendum 13 May 22:05 UT:
More on the microwave experiment in this article (HT to Brian Weeden). It seems it is not so much transmission by microwave, but the generation of microwaves from solar power, which is then send through a cable, if I get it correctly. Anyway: something with microwaves...

Addendum 15 May 23:20 UT:

Bob Christy wrote a very interesting analysis on his Zarya blog, in which he links similar odd jumps in past OTV launch windows to times of close KH-11 passes, the idea being that these KH-11 satellites image the OTV after launch to see whether everything is allright. If that is correct, then this leads to four possible launch times on May 16: 12:24, 13:15, 14:06 and 14:53 UT.
My estimated elsets for these four launch times can be found here.

Addendum 18 May 13:55 UT:

OTV 6 launched on 17 May 2020 at 14:13 UT. A pre-launch estimated elset can be found here;  a preliminary radio-observation based orbit here.

Based on the preliminary radio elset, OTV 6 appears to have been inserted into a 45-degree inclined orbit at ~390 km altitude. The ground track repeats every 3 days:

click to enlarge

Here is how the launch track based on the radio orbit (red dashed line) compares to my pre-launch estimated launch track based on the locations of the hazard areas from the Navigational Warnings (blue dashed line):

click map to enlarge