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Skywatcher and satellite tracker Ralf Vandebergh of the Netherlands recently caught a rare glimpse of the U.S. Air Force's secretive X-37B space plane.
Vandebergh said he'd been hunting for the robotic spacecraft for months and finally managed to track it down in May. But it took a bit longer to get photos of the vehicle.
Mid-June - Time - Path - Vandebergh - Orbit
"When I tried to observe it again [in] mid-June, it didn't meet the predicted time and path," Vandebergh explained. "It turned out to have maneuvered to another orbit. Thanks to the amateur satellite observers' network, it was rapidly found in orbit again, and I was able to take some images on June 30 and July 2."
The X-37B's recent passes were almost overhead, Vandebergh added.
X-37B - Orbital - Test - Vehicle - OTV
The X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), looks like a miniature version of NASA's retired space shuttle.
"It is really a small object, even at only 300 kilometers [186 miles] altitude, so don't expect the detail level of ground-based images of the real space shuttle," Vandebergh said.
Consideration - Imagery - Vandebergh - Expectations
Taking this into consideration, the newly captured imagery far exceeded Vandebergh's expectations.
"We can recognize a bit of the nose, payload bay and tail of this mini-shuttle, with even a sign of some smaller detail," he said.
Vandebergh - Photos - F/4 - Aperture - Telescope
Vandebergh captured the photos using a 10-inch F/4,8 aperture Newtonian telescope with an Astrolumina ALccd 5L-11 mono CMOS camera. Tracking was fully manual through a 6×30 finderscope, he said.
The X-37B has winged past 666 days of flight on this latest mission, which is called OTV-5 because it's the fifth flight for the program.
OTV-5 - Sept - Launch - SpaceX - Falcon
OTV-5 began on Sept. 7, 2017, with a launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
X-37B missions are carried out under the auspices of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, and mission control for OTV flights is handled by...
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