Virgin Orbit Readies First Launch

Ever since the Pan Am “Space Clipper” first slid into frame in 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the world has been waiting for the day that privately funded spaceflight would become as routine as air travel. Unfortunately, it’s a dream that’s taken a bit longer to become reality than many would have hoped. The loss of Challenger and Columbia were heartbreaking reminders that travel amongst the stars is not for the faint of heart or the ill-equipped, and pushed commercial investment in space back by decades.

Although Pan Am has since folded, we now have a number of companies working hard towards making the dream of commercial spaceflight a reality. SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown private companies developing and operating their own orbital class vehicles is a concept no longer limited to science fiction. Now that private industry has a foot in the door, more companies are coming forward with their own plans for putting their hardware into orbit. In many ways we’re seeing the dawn of a second Space Race.

If all goes according to plan, a new challenger should be entering the ring in the very near future. Scheduled to perform their first test launch before the end of the year, Virgin Orbit (a spin-off of the passenger carrying Virgin Galactic) promises to deliver small payloads to Earth orbit faster and cheaper than their competitors. But while most other commercial space companies are using fairly traditional booster rockets to do their heavy lifting, Virgin Orbit is opting for a the less common air launched approach. Before Virgin joins the ranks of commercial companies exploring the final frontier, lets take a look at their plan for getting into space and the advantages it offers compared to the competition.

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Milspec Teardown: C-1282 Chaff Controller

A B-52 bomber is approaching its primary target: rail yards in the Beloostrov district of Leningrad. Intel reports the area is likely defended by S-25 Berkut and S-75 Dvinia surface to air missiles (SAMs), but this close to the target the gigantic bomber can’t afford to make the evasive maneuvers, known as combat turns, which would help shake off enemy air defenses. From his position behind the co-pilot, the electronic warfare officer (EWO) reaches over and sets the C-1282 for continuous chaff ejection. Hundreds of thin metallic strips are jettisoned from the B-52, confusing tracking radar and allowing the bomber and her crew to slip through the Soviet air defenses and drop 50,000 lbs of ordnance directly onto the target.

Luckily for all of us, this event never actually occurred. But it was a possibility that the United States and Soviet Union had prepared for extensively. Both sides developed ever more capable weapons, and for each new weapon, a new countermeasure was invariably created. The C-1282 is a component of one such countermeasure, a device that allowed the B-52’s EWO to configure and monitor the bomber’s automatic chaff dispenser. With the C-1282 handling the anti-radar countermeasures, the bomber’s crew could focus their attention on completing their mission.

Of course, as is the case with technology (military or otherwise), the C-1282 was eventually phased out for something new. These old units, now largely worthless, were destroyed or sentenced to a lifetime collecting dust on a storeroom shelf. But through the magic of the Internet, one of these devices is now ready to be laid bare for your viewing pleasure. Dust off your Joseph McCarthy Junior Detective badge and come along as we take a look at a state of the art piece of Anti-Ruskie technology, circa 1960.

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