Good timing, great weather, and luck permitted me not only to see STS-131 land at Kennedy Space Center, but to see an Air Force “Top Secret” rocket launch on April 22nd.
A unmanned reusable spaceplane was launched into orbit aboard an 196 foot tall Atlas 5 rocket at 7:52pm under perfect launch conditions.
Built by Boeing Phantom Works, the 29 foot long X-37B spacecraft has a modest cargo bay, a deployable solar array, and a maneuvering engine that can sustain an orbit for weeks or even months at an altitude of 126 to 575 miles.
Here are some images I captured from the town of Wildwood, Florida, 84 miles by line of sight to Kennedy Space Center.
First, the smoke trail visable over roofs of houses about one minute after launch. The rocket then dissapeared for a few seconds, and again became visable about 15 degrees higher in the sky.
Now the Atlas rocket is leaving an ever widening smoke trail behind it.
Here is a extreme enlargement of the rocket.
The tail gets even wider at about 2:30 into the flight.
At about 4 minutes into the flight the Atlas 5 first stage falls away from the Centaur upper stage fueled by a hydrogen RL10 engine, which carried it into space.
A few seconds later the image that you see above basically “winked out” and nothing else was seen.
Again, all these images were taken with my Vixen scope at 2520mm with a Nikon camera.
Here a info graphic from NASA about the Spaceplane.