(AA) – A secretive Air Force spaceplane and a civilian-funded solar sail satellite were successfully launched into orbit Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
“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!” said United Launch Alliance Vice President Jim Sponnick in a statement.
Most of the details about the mysterious Boeing X-37B spaceplane remain classified, but it is the fourth mission for the craft. Officials have not revealed what the plane will do as it circles the planet or how long it will remain in orbit, but they have explained that the test will focus less on the spacecraft and more on the instruments onboard.
“We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission,” according to Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, in a statement late last month. “With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads.”
Far less classified are the 10 tiny CubeSats satellites being carried by the Atlas V rocket, including the LightSail – a solar sail satellite roughly the size of a loaf of bread. The craft was built by the non-profit Planetary Society led by former television star and current science advocate Bill Nye.
Once in space, the LightSail’s shiny sails will extend 32 square meters (344 square feet). Solar sails rope solar radiation pressure as power. This pressure imparts a miniscule but continual push – a push that can accelerate a spacecraft to rapid speeds given enough time.
Since CubeSats usually don’t have much room for fuel, advocates are hopeful solar sails could provide a reliable source of energy for these diminutive satellites.