Image: The X-37B on the landing strip on Dec.
Military Mini-Shuttle Completes Secret Mission On April 22, the U.S. Air Force launched a mini unmanned shuttle called the Orbital Test Vehicle, also known as the X-37B. After 224 days in space, the 9 meter-long robotic spacecraft landed under the shroud of darkness at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. In the early hours of Dec. 3, 2010, the X-37B became the first U.S. space vehicle to make an autonomous runway landing from orbit. Although the X-37B's mission was classified, the Air Force allowed a glimpse of the space drone shortly after it landed on the Californian air strip.
Image: The trail of the X-37B against a starr
Orbital Traces After launch, little was known about the X-37B's mission or orbit. However, amateur astronomers skilled at tracking satellites were able to occasionally glimpse the unmanned spacecraft as it streaked overhead.
Image: A screen grab from an Air Force infrar
An Infrared Landing An infrared snapshot of the X-37B shortly after landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Dec. 3, 2010. Presumably, the X-37B is highlighted due to heating caused by atmospheric re-entry.
Credit: U.S. Air Force
Suited Up Air Force personnel examine the X-37B shortly after landing. They are wearing S.C.A.P.E. (Self-Contained Atmospheric Protective Ensemble) suits while checking the vehicle and ensuring the area is safe. This is standard operating procedure, especially when working near toxic propellants.
Image: The X-37B getting serviced shortly aft
Awaiting Re-launch The hope is to make the X-37B a fast-turnaround space vehicle, where the same re-usable spacecraft can land, re-fueled and re-launched within days, rather than the months it takes to re-launch NASA's space shuttle fleet. "Once we get the bird back, see what it really takes to turn this bird around and get it ready to go fly again," Gary Payton, who served as undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, told reporters before the launch.
A robotic miniature space shuttle on a classified mission for the U.S. Air Force marked its 500th day in orbit on Friday, with no word about when and where the space plane will land.
The X-37B, one of two vehicles comprising the Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, program, blasted off aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 11, 2012.
Five hundred days later, it’s still in orbit, eclipsing by wide margin the 244-day flight of the last X-37B mission.
The Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the milestone, nor how much longer it planned to keep OTV-3 in space.
By the time it returns, the program may have a new home base.
Boeing is investing in a mothballed space shuttle processing hangar at the Kennedy Space Center to refurbish the 29-foot long X-37B vehicles in Florida. Previously, the vehicles launched from Florida but landed and were prepared for flight at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The move to the shuttle processing hangar will “enable the U.S. Air Force to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and re-launch” the spacecraft, Boeing said in a statement in January.
Under the plan, the X-37B would use the shuttle’s runway at the Kennedy Space Center for landing. Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency, is negotiating to lease the landing strip, among other facilities, from NASA.
The hangar earmarked for the X-37B program, which Boeing is subleasing from Space Florida, is one of three previously used to prepare NASA’s now-retired space shuttles for launch. It has been vacant since June 2012, following the return of shuttle Atlantis from the program’s final flight in July 2011.
Boeing already subleases another shuttle hangar for its planned CST-100 capsules, which are being developed in partnership with NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. The CST-100 also is designed to fly on United Launch Alliance Atlas rockets.
The X-37B currently in orbit had a debut flight in April 2010 that lasted 7.5 months. Its sister craft launched in March 2011 and returned to Earth in June 2012.
The Air Force says it is using the experimental space plane to test technologies, but provides no details.