Northrop Grumman and the Navy completed the first catapult launch of the X-47B remotely piloted aircraft in a shore-based test shot from NAS Patuxent River, Md. This event was “the Navy’s first catapult launch of an unmanned system,” according to Northrop Grumman’s release on Nov. 29, the same day as the launch. “Today’s successful launch is another critical milestone in the carrier-suitability testing phase of the UCAS-D program,” said Mike Mackey, director of Northrop Grumman’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator program. After launch, the X-47B flew a series of standard maneuvers, including a holding pattern and a deck landing approach over the Chesapeake Bay, in preparation for carrier trials that are scheduled to begin next year, states the release. Ground handlers also tested the company’s handheld control display unit that is designed to taxi, position, and recover the X-47. Testers plan more launches from Pax River over the next several weeks. Another X-47 vehicle last week embarked on the USS Harry Truman (CVN-75) to begin “deck handling trials” with the CDU; those activities are scheduled to continue through mid December. (See also Navy video of test.)
NASA, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance are all preparing to launch their next-gen rockets from Florida’s Space Coast, two of them before the year is out. One is expected to liberate the U.S. launch enterprise from its reliance on Russian-made RD-180 engines, while all three rockets could eventually carry astronaut crews.