ULA to Launch X-37B, LightSail on Wednesday

X-37B after landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on June 16, 2012. (Credit: Boeing/USAF)
X-37B after landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on June 16, 2012. (Credit: Boeing/USAF)

The U.S. Air Force’s mysterious X-37B spacecraft and The Planetary Society’s LightSail prototype will share a ride into space from Cape Canaveral on Wednesday aboard an United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster. NASA will also conduct a materials sciences experiment aboard the X-37B.

The launch window opens at 10:45 a.m. EDT and runs until 2:45 p.m. EDT. ULA will webcast the launch at http://www.ulalaunch.com.

The weather forecast shows a 60 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for launch.

This will mark the fourth flight of the Boeing-built X-37B spacecraft, whose full purpose has never been fully explained by the U.S. Air Force. It is known the spacecraft is being used to test new technologies in orbit.

You can watch the Atlas V AFSPC-5 mission overview video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5wQ-7WY-UY&feature=youtu.be.

LightSail is a CubeSat that will ride along as a secondary payload. Once it reaches orbit, the 4.93 kg spacecraft will unfurl a 32-square meter solar sail that will use the solar wind to propel the vehicle.

LightSail is a prototype for a more advanced solar sail that will be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2016. The second LightSail will attempt a full demonstration of solar sailing in Earth orbit.

The X-37B will be carrying NASA’s Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation, which will expose almost 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days. METIS is a follow on to the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), which flew more than 4,000 samples in space from 2001 to 2013.

“By exposing materials to space and returning the samples to Earth, we gain valuable data about how the materials hold up in the environment in which they will have to operate,” said Miria Finckenor, the co-investigator on the MISSE experiment and principal investigator for METIS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Spacecraft designers can use this information to choose the best material for specific applications, such as thermal protection or antennas or any other space hardware.”