Space Force launches robotic X-37B space plane on new mystery mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The U.S. Space Force’s mysterious X-37B space plane successfully launched on its sixth mystery mission from Florida today (May 17). 

Riding atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, the clandestine craft blasted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here at 9:14 a.m. EDT (1314 GMT). 

The on-time liftoff occurred just 24-hours after poor weather conditions at the Florida launch site forced ULA to scrub its original launch attempt, Saturday morning. 

While the X-37B’s exact purpose is a secret, Space Force officials have revealed that the craft is packing numerous experiments on this trip to test out different systems in space. Some of those experiments include a small satellite called FalconSat-8, two NASA payloads designed to study the effects of radiation on different materials as well as seeds to grow food, and a power-beaming experiment using microwave energy.

Related: The X-37B space plane: 6 surprising facts

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A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches an X-37B space plane on a classified mission for the U.S. Space Force from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on May 17, 2020.

(Image credit: United Launch Alliance)
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A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches an X-37B space plane on a classified mission for the U.S. Space Force from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on May 17, 2020.

(Image credit: United Launch Alliance)
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A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches an X-37B space plane on a classified mission for the U.S. Space Force from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on May 17, 2020.

(Image credit: United Launch Alliance)
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A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches an X-37B space plane on a classified mission for the U.S. Space Force from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on May 17, 2020.

(Image credit: United Launch Alliance)

The U.S.Space Force and Air Force Rapid Response Capabilities Office have two of the miniature shuttle-like X-37B space planes (also known as Orbital Test Vehicles, or OTVs) that it uses for classified military missions in low-Earth orbit. They have flown five missions since 2010, four of them on ULA Atlas V rockets and the fifth on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

X-37B returns to space

Today’s launch occurred just six months after the most recent mission, OTV-5, landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 2, 2019, completing a record-setting 780 days (just over two years) sojourn in space. 

Boeing built the X-37B space planes for the U.S. Air Force. The two vehicles have spent more than seven years in orbit across their missions. (Command of the mission and other space related activities transferred to the Space Force after its creation in 2019.)

Space Force officials have said that the experiments and technology the X-37B carries “enables the U.S. to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain.”

Related: How the secretive X-37B space plane works (infographic)

The X-37B space plane ahead is seen tucked inside the payload fairing of its Atlas V rocket ahead of a May 17, 2020 launch. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

To that end, this mission will have even more experiments than previous flights. That’s thanks to the addition of a new service module — a cylindrical extension attached to the bottom of the craft — a first for this mission. The addition of a service module will help to increase the vehicle’s capabilities, enabling it to conduct more experiments and test new technologies throughout the mission, Space Force officials have said.

ULA launched the X-37B on an Atlas V rocket in the 501 configuration, which means the vehicle has a 17-foot (5 meters) wide payload fairing, a single engine Centaur upper stage, and no solid rocket boosters. 

It marked the 84th flight of the Atlas V, which was recently dethroned as the most flown American launcher. That superlative was snagged by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which became the world’s most flown booster in April and is also set to launch its next flight (a Starlink satellite fleet launch) early Tuesday, May 19.

Honoring coronavirus responders

The U.S. Space Force and United Launch Alliance dedicated the X-37B space plane’s OTV_6 launch to the first-responders and victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image credit: United Launch Alliance)

Saturday’s launch, dubbed USSF-7, is dedicated to the first responders and medical personnel across the country who work daily to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The mission is part of the military’s “America Strong” campaign, which also includes a series of flyovers by the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels. ULA also stamped a tribute on the side of the Atlas V rocket that says: “In memory of COVID-19 victims and tribute to all first responders and front-line workers.”

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has infected approximately 4.5 million people globally, with 1.45 million of them in the United States. At least 87,991 have died from the disease in the U.S. as of May 16, according to Livescience.

“Thank you for your courage in caring for the sick and keeping us safe,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno tweeted, addressing the many first responders working selflessly to support the nation in this difficult time. 

“There are still heroes in this world,” he added. 

Officials at the 45th Space Wing said they have been doing their part to make sure the launch went smoothly while simultaneously protecting its workforce. 

“We have an obligation to keep space capabilities up and running for our nation,” Gen. John Raymond, chief of space operations in the U.S. Space Force and commander of the U.S. Space Command said during a prelaunch talk on May 6. 

To that end, the 45th Space Wing has been rotating crews between launches, reduced on-site staff as much as possible and practiced social distancing. Both NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station have kept public viewing areas closed for this launch as well as a SpaceX launch scheduled for Sunday morning.

This mission marks the second national security launch under the Space Force since its establishment in December. (The first was the AEHF-6 military communications satellite launch in March.)

The X-37B space plane is about 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and resembles a miniature space shuttle. For OTV_6, the robotic spacecraft carried a new service module that supports more experiments and longer stays in space. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

Space Force officials have chosen to delay some of the planned missions, however, due to concerns about the pandemic. For instance, the next GPS navigation satellite mission GPS 3 SV03 has been delayed several months to no earlier than June 30 to ensure that ground control crews were able to stay safe. 

It’s a busy time on the space coast, and the GPS constellation is healthy which reduces the pressure to get newer, upgraded satellites into orbit, officials said.

Today’s mission was originally part of a launch double header from Florida’s Space Coast. 

Following the Atlas V launch, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was supposed to take to the skies less than 24 hours later, carrying another batch of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites into orbit. 

That launch was originally on the books for today, but weather delays at the launch site and the emergence of a tropical depression out in the Atlantic prompted SpaceX to move the launch date.

When the Falcon 9 does launch, it will bring the total number of Starlink internet satellites up to nearly 500. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that between 400-800 satellites are needed to begin rolling out the first, albeit limited, iteration of its global internet service. 

If all goes as planned, the Falcon 9 will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 at 3:10 a.m. EDT (0710 GMT) on Tuesday.  

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

Published at Sun, 17 May 2020 13:56:43 +0000

Magellan probe       

 

            The Magellan spacecraft also referred to as the Venus Radar Mapper, was a 1,035-kilogram robotic space probe launched by NASA on May 4, 1989, to map the surface of Venus using Synthetic Aperture Radar and measure the planetary gravity. It was the first interplanetary mission to be launched from the Space Shuttle, the first to use an inertial upper stage booster and was the first spacecraft to test aerobraking as a method for circularizing an orbit. Magellan was the fourth successful, NASA funded mission to Venus and ended an eleven year U.S. interplanetary exploration hiatus.

Beginning in the late 1970s, scientists pushed for a radar mapping mission to Venus. First seeking to construct a spacecraft titled, Venus Orbiter Imaging Radar, it became obvious the mission would be outside the limits of the budgetary constraints during the following years and was subsequently canceled in 1982.

Recommended by the Solar System Exploration Committee, a stripped down mission proposal was resubmitted and accepted as the Venus Radar Mapper in 1983.

The proposal included a limited focus and a single primary scientific instrument. In 1985, the mission was renamed Magellan, after the sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, for his exploration, mapping and circumnavigation of the Earth, a goal this mission would have for Venus.

The objectives of the mission included:

    Obtain near-global radar images of Venus’ surface with a resolution equivalent to optical imaging of 1 km per line pair. (primary)

    Obtain a near-global topographic map with 50 km spatial and 100 m vertical resolution.

    Obtain near-global gravity field data with 700 km resolution and 2–3 milligals accuracy.

    Develop an understanding of the geological structure of the planet, including its density distribution and dynamics.

The spacecraft was designed and built by Martin Marietta and JPL provided mission management for the NASA division. Elizabeth Beyer served as program manager and Joseph Boyce served as lead program scientist for the NASA headquarters; for operations at JPL, Douglas Griffith served as Magellan project manager and R. Stephen Saunders served as lead project scientist.

The spacecraft was three-axis stabilized with three reaction wheels and twenty-four thrusters with 132.5-kilograms of hydrazine monopropellant onboard. Of the thrusters, eight are aimed aft, providing 444.82-N of thrust for course corrections, control of the spacecraft during the Venus orbital insertion maneuver and large orbit corrections during the mission; four along the side of the spacecraft provide 22.24-N for roll; the smallest twelve provide 0.88-N for minor attitude corrections and offsetting, or “desaturating”, the reaction wheels. To perform the Venus orbital insertion maneuver, the spacecraft was equipped with a Star 48 booster containing 2,014-kilograms of solid-propellant. Information regarding the orientation of the spacecraft was provided by a set of gyroscopes and a star scanner.

Magellan was powered by two square solar arrays, each measuring 2.5-meters across. Together, the arrays supplied 1,200-watts of power at the beginning of the mission. However, over the course of the mission the solar arrays gradually degraded due to frequent, extreme temperature changes. To power the spacecraft while occluded from the Sun, two 30-amp hour, 26-cell, Nickel-Cadmium batteries were included; the batteries recharged as the spacecraft received direct sun light.

Thick and opaque, the atmosphere of Venus required a method beyond optical survey, to map the surface of the planet. The resolution of conventional radar depends entirely on the size of the antenna, which is greatly restricted by costs, physical constraints by launch vehicles and the complexity of maneuvering a large apparatus to provide high resolution data. The Magellan spacecraft avoided this problem by using a method known as aperture synthesis, where a large antenna is imitated by processing the information gathered, by ground computers.

The Magellan high-gain antenna, oriented 28°–78° to the right or left of nadir, emitted thousands of microwave pulses that passed through the clouds and to the surface of Venus, illuminating a swath of land. The Radar System then recorded the brightness of each pulse as it reflected back off the side surfaces of rocks, cliffs, volcanoes and other geologic features, as a form of backscatter. To increase the imaging resolution, Magellan recorded a series of data bursts for a particular location during multiple instances called, “looks”. Each “look” slightly overlapped the previous, returning slightly different information for the same location, as the spacecraft moved in orbit. After transmitting the data back to Earth, Doppler modeling was used to take the overlapping “looks” and combine them into a continuous, high resolution image of the surface.

Magellan was launched on May 4, 1989, at 18:46:59 UTC by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from KSC Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis during mission STS-30. Once in orbit, an Inertial Upper Stage booster, deployed from the shuttle and launched on May 5, 1989 01:06:00 UTC, sending the spacecraft into a Type IV, heliocentric orbit where it would circle the Sun 1.5 times, before reaching Venus 15 months later on August 10, 1990.

Originally, Magellan had been scheduled for launch in 1988 with a trajectory lasting six months. However, due to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, several missions, including Galileo and Magellan, were deferred until the shuttle flights resumed September 1988.

Intended to be launched with a new, liquid fueled, Centaur-G shuttle deploy-able upper-stage booster, subsequently canceled after the Challenger disaster, Magellan had to be modified to attach to a less powerful solid-fueled, Inertial Upper Stage.

The next best opportunity for launch would occur in October 1989.

Further complicating the launch however, was the upcoming Galileo mission to Jupiter, which included a flyby of Venus. Intended for launch in 1986, the pressures to ensure a launch for Galileo in 1989, mixed with a short launch-window necessitating a mid-October launch, resulted in replanning the Magellan mission. Weary of rapid shuttle launches, the decision was made to launch Magellan in May, and into an orbit that would require 1 year and 3 months before encountering Venus.

On August 1, 1990, Magellan encountered Venus and began the orbital insertion maneuver which placed the spacecraft into a 3 hour and 9 minute, elliptical orbit which brought the spacecraft 295-kilometers from the surface at approximately 10° North during apoapsis and out to 7762-kilometers during periapsis.

During each orbit, the spacecraft would capture radar data while the spacecraft was nearest to the surface and then transmit it back to Earth as it moved away from Venus.

This maneuver required extensive use of the reaction wheels to continuously rotate the spacecraft as it imaged the surface for 37-minutes and as it pointed toward Earth for 2 hours.

The primary mission intended for the spacecraft to return images of at least 70% of the surface during one Venusian day, which lasts 243 Earth days as the planet slowly spins.

To avoid overly redundant data at the highest and lowest latitudes Magellan alternated between a Northern-swath, a region designated as 90° north latitude to 54° south latitude, and a Southern-swath, designated as 76° north latitude to 68° south latitude. However, due to apoapsis being 10° north of the equatorial line, imaging the South Pole region was unlikely to be possible.

    Study of the Magellan high-resolution global images is providing evidence to understand the role of impacts, volcanism, and tectonism in the formation of Venusian surface structures.

    The surface of Venus is mostly covered by volcanic materials. Volcanic surface features, such as vast lava plains, fields of small lava domes, and large shield volcanoes are common.

    There are few impact craters on Venus, suggesting that the surface is, in general, geologically young – less than 800 million years old.

The presence of lava channels over 6,000 kilometers long suggests river-like flows of extremely low-viscosity lava that probably erupted at a high rate.

Large pancake-shaped volcanic domes suggest the presence of a type of lava produced by extensive evolution of crustal rocks.

The typical signs of terrestrial plate tectonics – continental drift and basin floor spreading – are not in evidence on Venus. The planet’s tectonics is dominated by a system of global rift zones and numerous broad, low domical structures called coronae, produced by the upwelling and subsidence of magma from the mantle.

Although Venus has a dense atmosphere, the surface reveals no evidence of substantial wind erosion, and only evidence of limited wind transport of dust and sand.

This contrasts with Mars, where there is a thin atmosphere, but substantial evidence of wind erosion and transport of dust and sand.

Study of the Magellan high-resolution global images is providing evidence to better understand Venusian geology and the role of impacts, volcanism, and tectonism in the formation of Venusian surface structures.

The surface of Venus is mostly covered by volcanic materials. Volcanic surface features, such as vast lava plains, fields of small lava domes, and large shield volcanoes are common. There are few impact craters on Venus, suggesting that the surface is, in general, geologically young – less than 800 million years old. The presence of lava channels over 6,000 kilometers long suggests river-like flows of extremely low-viscosity lava that probably erupted at a high rate. Large pancake-shaped volcanic domes suggest the presence of a type of lava produced by extensive evolution of crustal rocks.

Magellan created the first (and currently the best) near-photographic quality, high resolution radar mapping of the planet’s surface features.

Prior Venus missions had created low resolution radar globes of general, continent-sized formations. Magellan, however, finally allowed detailed imaging and analysis of craters, hills, ridges, and other geologic formations, to a degree comparable to the visible-light photographic mapping of other planets. Magellan’s global radar map will remain the most detailed Venus map in existence for the foreseeable future, although the planned Russian Venera-D may carry a radar that can achieve the same, if not better resolution as the radar used by Magellan.

 

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Aversa, R., Petrescu, RV., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., Calautit, JK., Mirsayar, MM., Bucinell, R., Berto, F., Akash, B., 2017 Something about the V Engines Design, American Journal of Applied Sciences 14(1):34-52.

Aversa, R., Parcesepe, D., Petrescu, RV., Berto, F., Chen, G., Petrescu, FIT., Tamburrino, F., Apicella, A., 2017 Processability of Bulk Metallic Glasses, American Journal of Applied Sciences 14(2): 294-301.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Calautit, JK., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Yield at Thermal Engines Internal Combustion, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences 10(1): 243-251.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Velocities and Accelerations at the 3R Mechatronic Systems, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences 10(1): 252-263.

Berto, F., Gagani, A., Petrescu, RV., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 A Review of the Fatigue Strength of Load Carrying Shear Welded Joints, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences 10(1):1-12.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R.,  Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Anthropomorphic Solid Structures n-R Kinematics, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences 10(1): 279-291.

Aversa, R., Petrescu, RV., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Chen, G., Li, S., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Something about the Balancing of Thermal Motors, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences 10(1):200-217.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Inverse Kinematics at the Anthropomorphic Robots, by a Trigonometric Method, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(2): 394-411.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Calautit, JK., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Forces at Internal Combustion Engines, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(2): 382-393.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Gears-Part I, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(2): 457-472.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Gears-Part II, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(2): 473-483.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Cam-Gears Forces, Velocities, Powers and Efficiency, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(2): 491-505.

Aversa, R., Petrescu, RV., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 A Dynamic Model for Gears, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(2): 484-490.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Kosaitis, S., Abu-Lebdeh, T., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Dynamics of Mechanisms with Cams Illustrated in the Classical Distribution, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(2): 551-567.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Bucinell, R., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Kosaitis, S., Abu-Lebdeh, T., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Testing by Non-Destructive Control, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(2): 568-583.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Li, S., Mirsayar, MM., Bucinell, R., Kosaitis, S., Abu-Lebdeh, T., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Electron Dimensions, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(2): 584-602.

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Kozaitis, S., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Deuteron Dimensions, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(3).

Petrescu RV., Aversa R., Apicella A., Petrescu FIT., 2017 Transportation Engineering, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(3).

Petrescu RV., Aversa R., Kozaitis S., Apicella A., Petrescu FIT., 2017 Some Proposed Solutions to Achieve Nuclear Fusion, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(3).

Petrescu RV., Aversa R., Kozaitis S., Apicella A., Petrescu FIT., 2017 Some Basic Reactions in Nuclear Fusion, American Journal of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 10(3).

Petrescu, Relly Victoria; Aversa, Raffaella; Akash, Bilal; Bucinell, Ronald; Corchado, Juan; Berto, Filippo; Mirsayar, MirMilad; Apicella, Antonio; Petrescu, Florian Ion Tiberiu; 2017a Modern Propulsions for Aerospace-A Review, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft Technology, 1(1).

Petrescu, Relly Victoria; Aversa, Raffaella; Akash, Bilal; Bucinell, Ronald; Corchado, Juan; Berto, Filippo; Mirsayar, MirMilad; Apicella, Antonio; Petrescu, Florian Ion Tiberiu; 2017b Modern Propulsions for Aerospace-Part II, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft Technology, 1(1).

Petrescu, Relly Victoria; Aversa, Raffaella; Akash, Bilal; Bucinell, Ronald; Corchado, Juan; Berto, Filippo; Mirsayar, MirMilad; Apicella, Antonio; Petrescu, Florian Ion Tiberiu; 2017c History of Aviation-A Short Review, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft Technology, 1(1).

Petrescu, Relly Victoria; Aversa, Raffaella; Akash, Bilal; Bucinell, Ronald; Corchado, Juan; Berto, Filippo; Mirsayar, MirMilad; Apicella, Antonio; Petrescu, Florian Ion Tiberiu; 2017d Lockheed Martin-A Short Review, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft Technology, 1(1).

Petrescu, Relly Victoria; Aversa, Raffaella; Akash, Bilal; Corchado, Juan; Berto, Filippo; Mirsayar, MirMilad; Apicella, Antonio; Petrescu, Florian Ion Tiberiu; 2017e Our Universe, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft Technology, 1(1).

Petrescu, Relly Victoria; Aversa, Raffaella; Akash, Bilal; Corchado, Juan; Berto, Filippo; Mirsayar, MirMilad; Apicella, Antonio; Petrescu, Florian Ion Tiberiu; 2017f What is a UFO?, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft Technology, 1(1).

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 About Bell Helicopter FCX-001 Concept Aircraft-A Short Review, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft Technology, 1(1).

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Home at Airbus, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft Technology, 1(1).

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Mirsayar, MM., Kozaitis, S., Abu-Lebdeh, T., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 Airlander, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft Technology, 1(1).

Petrescu, RV., Aversa, R., Akash, B., Corchado, J., Berto, F., Apicella, A., Petrescu, FIT., 2017 When Boeing is Dreaming – a Review, Journal of Aircraft and Spacecraft TechnologyHealth Fitness Articles, 1(1).

 

 

 

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