2010.04.22 23:52 GMT
Air Force X-37B spaceplane arrives in Florida for launch BY STEPHEN CLARK Posted: February 25, 2010
A secretive military spacecraft resembling a small space shuttle orbiter flew to Florida in the belly of a cargo plane this week to undergo final processing for launch on April 19.
The Air Force confirmed the critical preflight milestone in a response to written questions on Thursday.
The 29-foot-long, 15-foot-wide Orbital Test Vehicle arrived in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Monday, according to the Air Force. The OTV spaceplane was built at a Boeing Phantom Works facility in Southern California.
Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the OTV program is shrouded in secrecy, but military officials occasionally release information on the the spaceplane’s progress.
“It is now undergoing spacecraft processing including checkout, fueling, and encapsulating in the 5-meter fairing of the Atlas 5 [rocket],” an Air Force spokesperson said.
The 11,000-pound vehicle will launch inside the nose cone of the Atlas 5 rocket. Liftoff is currently set for 10 p.m. EDT on April 19.
The reusable spacecraft is more famously known as the X-37B. The design is based on the orbital and re-entry demonstrator initially developed by NASA, then handed over to the Pentagon.
The NASA version of the X-37 featured an equipment bay 7 feet long and 4 feet in diameter for experiments and deployable payloads.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency completed a series of approach and landing tests in 2007 using the White Knight airplane from Scaled Composites as a mothership.
It is easy to track the X-37’s tumultuous history. NASA awarded the first X-37 contract to Boeing in July 1999, and the agency flew a series of visible atmopsheric tests on a scale model of the spaceplane in 2001. The X-37 began its transformation from a human spaceflight testbed to a military-run project when NASA shifted responsibility to DARPA in September 2004, a consequence of the space agency’s new focus on lunar exploration.
But specific payloads for the Air Force’s OTV program aren’t so clear. Officials have denied interview requests on the project, and the military only releases information through written responses.
The X-37B’s mission is to “demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force,” the military fact sheet says. “Objectives of the OTV program include space experimentation, risk reduction and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”
At the end of its mission, the X-37B will fire its engine and drop from orbit, autonomously navigating through a fiery re-entry on the way to its 15,000-foot-long primary runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Edwards Air Force Base is the backup landing site.
The duration of the spaceplane’s first mission isn’t being announced.
“The X-37B has the requirement to be on-orbit up to 270 days,” the Air Force spokesperson said. “Actual length for the first mission will depend on the meeting the mission objectives, which consists of checkout and performance characteristics of the spacecraft systems.”
Air Force Bloggers Roundtable: Air Force set to launch first X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle APRIL 20, 2010 AT 7:24 PM
In a special Air Force roundtable today, Mr. Gary Payton, Air Force Deputy Under Secretary for Space Programs, hosted a media teleconference on the first launch of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.
Lt. Col. Erik Bowman, 45th Launch Support Squadron commander, Patrick AFB, Fla., was also on line to provide information on details regarding launch support. The OTV is the U.S.’s newest and most advanced unmanned re-entry spacecraft April 22 at Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle will provide a flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment where it will need to function. Read the X-37B fact sheet.
The X-37B will also prove new technology and components before they are committed to operational satellites.
“The X-37B is an important step in the effort to make space access more routine, affordable, and responsive,” Mr. Gary Payton, Air Force Under Secretary for Space Programs, said. “The technologies and concepts of employment that are proven by the Orbital Test Vehicle will be folded into development programs that will provide capabilities for our warfighters in the future.”
The program directly supports the Department of Defense\u2019s technology risk reduction efforts for new satellite systems. It will provide an “on-orbit laboratory” test environment to prove new technology and components before those technologies are committed to operational satellite programs.
The X-37 program, while originally a NASA initiative, is now led by Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office officials, which expedite development and fielding of select Defense Department combat support and weapons systems. The OTV is the first vehicle since NASA’s shuttle orbiter that has the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis.
Atlas rocket delivers Air Force spaceplane to orbit BY STEPHEN CLARK Posted: April 22, 2010
Just down the road from where the shuttle Atlantis is being prepped for flight, the U.S. Air Force launched its own unmanned reusable spaceplane to orbit aboard an Atlas 5 rocket Thursday evening on a round-trip shakedown mission.
The military space shuttle does not carry a crew, but it relies on a laundry list of new technologies that Air Force officials hope will revolutionize how the Pentagon executes its space programs.
“Fundamentally, this is an updated version of the space shuttle,” said Gary Payton, the U.S. Air Force’s top civilian leader for military space programs. “The Air Force has a suite of military missions in space. This new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better.”
Built by Boeing Phantom Works, the 29-foot-long, 11,000-pound X-37B spacecraft sports a modest cargo bay, a powerful maneuvering engine, a deployable solar array, and stubby wings to guide the ship back to Earth after its mission.
“Our top priority is demonstrating the vehicle itself,” Payton said. “This has an autonomous flight control system, a new generation of silica tile, a wealth of other new technologies that are one generation beyond the shuttle.”
Although officials are openly discussing the X-37B platform itself, the Air Force is mum on exactly what payloads the unmanned ship carries inside its cargo hold, which is about the size of a pickup truck bed.
“The actual on-orbit activities we do classify,” Payton said earlier this week in a conference call with reporters. “We’re doing that in this case for the actual experimental payloads that are on-orbit with the X-37.”
It will land on a runway originally built for the space shuttle at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Officially named the Orbital Test Vehicle, the prototype spaceplane is about one-quarter the size of a space shuttle orbiter.
“The Orbital Test Vehicle combines the best of aircraft and spacecraft to enable flexible and responsive missions,” said Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of experimental systems and program director for the X-37B. “This first flight will demonstrate the readiness of the X-37B to begin serving the Air Force as it continues to investigate ways to make space access more routine, affordable and responsive.”
Besides saying the mission will demonstrate the craft’s high-tech capabilities, the Air Force is not releasing any information on what experiments or objectives are planned while the X-37B is in orbit.
The mission entered a news blackout less than 20 minutes after the 196-foot-tall Atlas 5 rocket blasted off at 7:52 p.m. EDT (2352 GMT) from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The Atlas 5 rocket launched in the 501 configuration with a 5.4-meter payload fairing, no solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.
Thursday’s launch was the first flight of that version of the Atlas 5, and it was the first time the rocket’s larger payload shroud has flown since 2006.
“This vehicle is light enough to launch without the solid rocket motors even with the larger fairing, making this a rather unique configuration,” said Lt. Col. Erik Bowman, commander of the 45th Launch Support Squadron at Cape Canaveral.
After flying vertically away from the launch pad at Complex 41, the Atlas 5’s Russian-made main engine steered the rocket east from the Space Coast and into a clear blue sky awash with breathtaking sunset colors.
Less than four minutes into the flight, the Atlas 5 rocket was already at the edge of space, high enough to jettison the 17-foot diameter nose cone cocooning the miniature space shuttle.
The Atlas first stage pulled away from the Centaur upper stage four-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, and the hydrogen-fueled RL10 engine ignited on time about 10 seconds later.
After firing for nearly 13 minutes, the Centaur shut down on schedule. The upper stage cut loose of the spaceplane about 20 minutes after liftoff.
United Launch Alliance and Air Force officials say the launch was successful.
The Air Force is not releasing the ship’s planned orbit, but officials say it is designed to operate at altitudes between 110 and 500 nautical miles, or 126 to 575 statute miles.
The X-37B’s on-board engine is capable of significant maneuvers after the craft arrives in orbit.
Once in space, the spaceplane was supposed to open its clamshell-like payload bay doors and unfurl its solar panel.
During several weeks or months in orbit, the X-37B will be a testbed for secret new technologies.
Future flights of the reusable spaceship could approach U.S. or foreign satellites, recover old spacecraft, or test out surveillance and repair techniques. The speculation leads some to voice concerns over the militarization of space.
During a teleconference with reporters Tuesday, Payton said none of those activities are part of the X-37B’s first flight. The craft launching Thursday does not carry a robot arm like the shuttle, and there are no rendezvous objectives planned for the mission, according to Payton.
Officials hope this test flight will lead to more responsive space systems, including reusable vehicles like the X-37B.
“If we’re successful with this first launch, I would love to see us proliferate the X-37 idea and marry it up with Operationally Responsive Space,” Payton said in a March interview. “We could have an X-37 sitting at Vandenberg or at the Cape, and on comparitively short notice, depending on warfighter requirements, we could put a specific payload into the payload bay, launch it up on an Atlas or Delta, and then have it stay in orbit, do the job for the combatant commander, and come back home. And then the next flight, we could have a different payload inside, maybe even for a different combatant commander.”
The Air Force does not plan to release any updates during the miniature shuttle’s flight, but a cadre of dedicated satellite observers on the ground could track the spaceplane’s orbit.
The trackers may also see any objects deployed by the spacecraft.
New heat shield technologies, advanced guidance and navigation, a solar power generation system, and new flight control systems are at the top of the list of public goals for the test flight.
“The primary objectives of the X-37 are to [prove] a new batch of vehicle technologies for America’s future, plus readying and demonstrating the concept of operations for reusable experimental payloads,” Payton said.
The X-37B will return to Earth only after it completes its top secret experiments in orbit.
The mission will be controlled by the Air Force’s 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.
The length of the mission has not been determined, according to Payton. The craft can stay in orbit for up to 270 days.
At the end of the flight, the craft’s main engine will fire to drop the ship from orbit. The spaceplane will re-enter the atmosphere on a computer-controlled autopilot and make a high-speed landing at nearly 300 mph.
“Our re-entry activity is slightly different than the shuttle because the real-time human control won’t be there every single instance of de-orbit preps and de-orbit burn and entry,” Payton said. “It will be relying on its own autopilot, its own gyroscopes, its own GPS receivers, eventually its own altimeter. It will be on its own all the way through entry and landing. And that’s dramatically different than the way shuttle does it.”
A second spaceplane is under construction for launch some time next year. The Air Force will not set a specific launch date until the first X-37B safely returns.
“The most important demonstration is on the ground,” Payton said. “Once we get the bird back, we’ll see what it really takes to turn this bird around and get it ready to go fly again, to learn how to do payload changeout on the ground, to learn how much it really costs to do this turnaround on the ground with these new technologies on the X-37 itself.”
The Air Force hopes turnaround times and operations expenses prove faster and less costly than traditional space platforms.
“There is much to learn in the first few flights on the technologies used on this vehicle, how quickly it can be readied for a re-flight, and on the operational utility,” said David Hamilton, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “We have started discussions with Air Force Space Command (officials) to plan for the possibility for transition to an operational capability, but the system first must prove its utility and cost effectiveness during the test program.”
In development for more than a decade, the X-37B craft builds on earlier design and testing by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Air Force took over the program in 2006.
The program’s future, including the potential for operational sorties, hinges on the outcome of test flights in 2010 and 2011.
“That all depends on the success of these first two birds,” Payton said. “Can we keep the [operations and maintenance] costs low? Can we turn them around between flights easily?”
USA-212 was launched on an Atlas V 501 rocket, tail number AV-012, from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch, which was conducted by United Launch Alliance, occurred at 23:52 UTC on April 22, 2010, placing the spacecraft into low Earth orbit for testing.
The X-37B spacecraft was originally intended to be deployed from the payload bay of a NASA Space Shuttle, but following the Columbia accident, it was transferred to a Delta II 7920. It was subsequently transferred to the Atlas V following concerns over the X-37B’s aerodynamic properties during launch.
The launch was the first flight of the Atlas V 501 configuration, and the first in four years to use a 5.4-meter (18 ft) payload fairing. Prior to the installation of the spacecraft, the Atlas rocket was moved to the launch pad and performed a wet dress rehearsal on 2 April 2010. It was returned to the Vertical Integration Facility the next day for final assembly. The X-37 arrived at the VIF on 8 April. On 9 April, a 24-hour delay was announced. It subsequently slipped a further 24 hours after the landing of Space Shuttle Discovery on Mission STS-131 was delayed, as the Eastern Range could not have been reconfigured quickly enough to accommodate both events on the same day. After a series of delays, it was set for 19 April 2010. On 21 April, the Atlas was rolled back out to the launch pad for launch. The launch window on 22 April opened at 23:52 UTC, and closed at 00:01 on 23 April.
Atlas V 501
Inclination 40 degrees
Apoapsis 293 km (182 mi)
Periapsis 280 km (170 mi)
Secret X-37B Space Plane Spotted by Amateur Skywatchers by Leonard David, SPACE.com's Space Insider Columnist Date: 22 May 2010 Time: 08:00 PM ET
While the U.S. Air Force is mum about the orbital whereabouts of its X-37B mini-space plane, a dedicated band of amateur skywatchers has got its cross-hairs on the spacecraft.
The unpiloted X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1 was lofted on April 22 atop an Atlas launcher. It is being flown under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
In U.S. military tracking parlance, when the space plane reached orbit it became identified as Catalog Number 36514, 2010-015A, OTV-1 (USA 212). [Video: X-37B space plane spotted.]
From there it entered a cone of silence regarding any on-orbit duties.
But thanks to a worldwide eyes-on-the-sky network of amateurs, the spacecraft is reportedly in a 39.99 degrees inclination, circling the Earth in an orbit 401 kilometers by 422 kilometers. This data may change slightly as the vehicle’s orbit is better refined, said Greg Roberts of Cape Town, South Africa, a pioneer in using telescopic video cameras to track spacecraft, chalking up exceptional results over the years.
The Air Force has not said what the robotic ship is for, but analysts say the X-37B is likely a spy craft and almost surely not a weapon. [X-37B spacecraft photos.]
Roberts said that those sighting the craft have “absolute confidence” in their observations, claiming no chance of it being anything else. “The fact that we have now seen it several times confirms that the orbit we have is very close to the real orbit – perhaps an error of a few kilometers or so at most,” he told SPACE.com.
“One of our North American members got a brief view of what was suspected to be the space plane under somewhat difficult circumstances before it was no longer visible in the evening sky from the United States,” Roberts said.
That single observation was not enough to define the spacecraft’s inclination as the skywatcher used binoculars, Roberts added. Video observers of the sky get “traces” when they record the object of interest, he continued, so it’s possible to determine the angle of travel and hence an idea of the inclination.
Roberts said the space plane has been observed over the last week by several members and its orbit is properly tied down. “We now face a spell of a week to two weeks when there will be no optical visibility until it becomes a morning object in the southern hemisphere and an evening object in the northern hemisphere.”
The degree of difficulty in finding the X-37B has been a product of not knowing its inclination and having limited optical visibility due to its low orbiting altitude. Amateur astronomers learn how to spot satellites by tracking spacecraft orbits and finding when they may fly over viewing areas on the ground.
“This means it spends most of its time in Earth’s shadow during a pass,” Roberts said. Also the ship’s low inclination and altitude has meant that tracking has only been possible from mid-latitude, ruling out observations by some of the members of the team unless they are in position at very low elevations.
According to Ted Molczan, a leader in the satellite sleuthing business based in Toronto, the X-37B search was moderately challenging.
“It was the first launch of its kind, so we had only a rough idea of its altitude, inclination and plane. Its low altitude and inclination put it out of reach of several of our most skilled observers,” he told SPACE.com.
Molczan said his role was estimating the range of possible orbits in which the space plane might be found, which was the basis for the searches.
“The object is moderately bright. Based on the limited tracking so far, I estimate that it will reach about magnitude 2.5 when observed at high elevation above the horizon, and well illuminated by the sun. That is similar to the brightest stars of the Big Dipper,” Molczan said.
What’s behind the nighttime fixation on the X-37B?
“Well the challenge is finding it without much data to go on,” Roberts responded. “If the data were freely available we would probably not have bothered with it. I see little sense in tracking objects for which data is freely available. It’s like re-inventing the wheel. So as long as there are missions with little or no information, I personally will be interested in the challenge of finding them.”
Roberts said that the sky watching group has a pretty good record. “If memory is correct, we have found and are tracking every single object launched in the past five years or more. The only objects we are not able to track are those stationed over areas of the earth where we have no active observers???mainly the central Pacific Ocean area.”
Next up on the Roberts “to-do” list is attempting to see if the space plane is emitting any radio signals on the frequency bands that he’s able to monitor.
“That is going to be an even bigger challenge,” Roberts concluded, “and I’m not really that keen on it as it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack!”
Still, even with the ground observations, exactly what’s tucked inside the X-37B’s cargo hold – about the size of a pickup truck bed – remains a mystery.
The X-37B signals a new way for the Air Force to conduct on-orbit experiments, said Gary Payton, Air Force deputy under secretary for space programs, during a pre-launch press briefing teleconference last month. “Actual on-orbit activities we do classify…for the experimental payloads that are on-orbit with the X-37,” he noted.
Payton did indicate that there’s enough payload room on the mini-space shuttle to house a couple of small satellites in the range of a few hundred kilograms each. There is growing speculation that the vehicle is likely toting Earth spying gear for the National Reconnaissance Office.
The reusable X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1 was built by Boeing Phantom Works. It is about 29 feet (9 meters) long and has a wingspan of just over 14 feet (4 meters) across. It stands just over 9 ½ feet (3 meters) tall and weighs nearly 11,000 pounds (about 5,000 kg).
Big test ahead
The OTV 1 mission is also designed to test new technologies and develop ways to make space access more routine, affordable and responsive. The OTV is the first vehicle since NASA’s shuttle orbiter capable of returning experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis.
A second X-37B is now being fabricated for a test mission scheduled for 2011.
X-37B is being operated under the direction of Air Force Space Command’s 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, a space control unit located at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.
Capable of orbiting Earth for up to 270 days, a big test for the X-37B is ahead: A “do-it-itself” guided entry and wheels down runway landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with Edwards Air Force Base as an alternate site.
If the incoming space plane strays off its auto-pilot trajectory over the Pacific Ocean, the craft is outfitted with a destruct mechanism.
'Secret' X-37B Space Plane Disappears Again by NICHOLOS WETHINGTON on OCTOBER 11, 2010
The game between the United States Air Force and amateur satellite trackers continues: the unmanned X-37B space plane – a classified project of the Air Force – has changed orbit once again, leaving those that monitor the flyovers of the space plane scrambling to locate it once again.
The X-37B was launched on April 22nd, 2010 on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and has been orbiting the Earth ever since. During the period between July 29th and August 14th of this year, the plane changed its orbit and forced the amateurs that monitor the satellite to find it again, and recalculate its orbital path. According to Spaceweather.com yesterday, the X-37B has once again changed its location. It did not pass over at the expected time on the nights of October 7th and October 9th.
Possibilities for this latest change in orbit include a simple maneuvering test or change in the current testing phase of the plane, or the potential that it is finally about to land. The gallium arsenide solar panels on the craft should allow it to stay in space for up to 270 days, but it has only been 173 days since the launch.
The X-37B is controlled remotely, and can automatically land. Once this flight is over, it will land at either the Vandenberg Air Force Base or the Edwards Air Force Base, both located in California.
Not much has been said about the the secret project by the Air Force. Started at NASA in 1999, the automated space plane was handed over to the Pentagon in 2004. This initial flight of the X-37B is billed as a test of the craft by the Air Force. Here’s its description according to the Air Force fact sheet:
“The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is a non-operational system that will demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The objectives of the OTV program include space experimentation, risk reduction and a concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”
Of course, there has been much speculation about whether this constitutes the “weaponization of space”, since it is, after all, a project of the Air Force instead of NASA. To put your mind at ease, here’s a link to an analysis of potential uses of the X-37B by former Air Force officer Brian Wheeden, who is now a Technical Adviser to the Secure World Foundation. He places the likelihood that the space plane could be used as a weapon at zero, but its capabilities as an orbital spy platform are feasible.
If you want a comprehensive look into the history and the possible uses of the X-37B, there is a lengthy article over at Air & Space by associate editor Michael Klesius.
There’s also a video up on Space.com by satellite tracker Kevin Fetter of Brockville, Ontario showing a flyover of the plane.
We’ll keep you posted as to when the X-37B is recovered by amateurs, if it has landed, or in the unlikely event that the Air Force decides to release any information about its current mission.
Military space shuttle receives mission extension BY STEPHEN CLARK Posted: November 29, 2011
Quietly orbiting Earth since March, the U.S. Air Force’s second X-37B space plane will surpass its 270-day design life Wednesday with no sign the clandestine spacecraft is landing any time soon.
The X-37B has been in orbit since March 5, when an Atlas 5 rocket hauled the two-ton, 29-foot-long spacecraft into space from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
“On-orbit experimentation is continuing,” said Air Force Maj. Tracy Bunko, an spokesperson for the Secretary of the Air Force. “Though we cannot predict when that will be complete, we are learning new things about the vehicle every day, which makes the mission a very dynamic process.”
The winged spaceship’s specific mission is secret, as is the contents of the craft’s unpressurized cargo hold. But the Air Force says its purpose is to haul experiments and other small payloads to space and return them intact.
It’s circling 210 miles overhead moving at more than 17,000 mph, but the stubby-winged spaceship is designed to glide back to Earth guided by GPS navigation signals and touch down precisely on a runway in California.
Air Force officials said the X-37 was designed to fly in space for up to 270 days, but engineers will extend the mission beyond its nine-month baseline.
“We initially planned for a 9-month mission, but will continue to extend it as circumstances allow,” Bunko said in a statement released to Spaceflight Now. “This will provide us with additional experimentation opportunities and allow us to extract the maximum value out of the mission.”
With wings, tail stabilizers and cargo bay doors, the reusable X-37B resembles a space shuttle orbiter. It’s about a quarter of the size of an orbiter, and its thermal blankets and heat shield tiles give the craft a checkered black, gray and white color.
But the space plane’s tiles are tougher than the shuttle’s, its electromechanical flight control system replaces the orbiter’s hydraulic actuators, and the X-37B is powered by a deployable solar panel instead of cryogenic fuel cells.
The upgrades allow the X-37B to stay in orbit months longer than the space shuttle, which was limited to missions lasting about two-and-a-half weeks, according to Air Force officials.
The X-37B is also called the Orbital Test Vehicle.
The Air Force says it will not announce the return date until landing nears. The military revealed the first X-37 mission’s homecoming a day before it flew to a successful landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
When engineers decide to end the mission, the X-37 will fire a thruster to drop from orbit and plunge back into the atmosphere. The space plane will be shielded from scorching temperatures by ceramic tiles as it soars over the Pacific Ocean, and its guidance computer will autonomously hone in on 15,000-foot runway at Vandenberg.
The inaugural X-37 orbital mission, which ended last Dec. 3 after 224 days in space, accomplished the first U.S. automatic landing from space on a runway. The Soviet Union’s Buran space shuttle achieved the feat in 1988.
Built by Boeing Co., the X-37 space plane started off as a NASA project. The Defense Department took over in 2004, and responsibility for the X-37 ended up with the Air Force in late 2006.
Boeing built two space-worthy X-37s. Before approving plans to launch the current mission, engineers inspected the first craft after its return last year.
Last year’s flight demonstrated the craft could operate in space and successfully return. Going into this year’s mission, officials said they would further explore the craft’s capabilities, including a longer stay in orbit and accepting worse weather conditions for landing.
For now, the Air Force plans to maintain silence on the progress of the current mission.
“We won’t have anything else to say until we announce a landing date, which has not yet been determined,” Bunko said.
Ted Molczan, a respected satellite tracker based in Canada, said the ongoing mission has maintained its orbit between 200 miles and 215 miles in altitude since launch. Last year’s flight conducted more orbit adjustments, possibly to test the craft’s propulsion system.
Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, headquartered in the Pentagon, the Orbital Test Vehicle program tentatively plans a third flight in the future. But the Air Force will not release a date for the next mission.
Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37 program director, said more information on another flight could be released by the end of the year.
Preparations underway for first landing of X-37B Posted 11/30/2010 Updated 11/30/2010
11/30/2010 - VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Preparations for the first landing of the X-37B are underway at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Space professionals from the 30th Space Wing will monitor the de-orbit and landing of the Air Force’s first X-37B, called the Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1). While the exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations, it is expected to occur between Friday, Dec. 3, and Monday, Dec. 6, 2010.
Secretive X-37B robot space plane returns to Earth Unmanned Air Force craft was on mission for seven months updated 12/3/2010 11:37:22 AM ET
After seven months in space, the U.S. Air Force’s secretive X-37B unmanned space plane returned to Earth on Friday to wrap up a debut flight shrouded in secrecy.
The robotic X-37B space plane landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to end its maiden voyage. The space plane, also known as Orbital Test Vehicle 1, glided back to Earth over the Pacific Ocean before landing at the revamped Vandenberg runway at about 1:16 a.m. PT Dec. 3.
“Today’s landing culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between the 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office,” said Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager from the AFRCO, which oversaw the mission. “We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission.”
In all, the X-37B space plane spent more than 220 days in orbit. Air Force officials said earlier this week that the X-37B could land anytime between Friday and Monday.
The Air Force has kept the exact nature and cost of the X-37B’s secretive mission a closely guarded secret, but some analysts and skywatchers have speculated that the spacecraft served as an unmanned orbital spy platform.
Robot space drone’s long flight
The Air Force launched the robot space plane atop an equally unmanned Atlas 5 rocket on April 22. Since then, the spacecraft has orbited Earth, at times tracked by meticulous skywatchers who first spotted the spacecraft in space using telescopes, then noticed its apparent manuevers to change orbits.
“This is a historical first, not only for Vandenberg Air Force Base, but for the Air Force and our nation to receive a recoverable spacecraft here and really take a step forward in advancing unmanned space flight,” 30th Space Wing commander Col. Richard Boltz said in a statement issued before the landing.
The X-37B space drone is robotic winged spacecraft that looks in many ways like a miniature space shuttle. It was built by Boeing’s Phantom Works Division in Seal Beach, Calif., and can fly long, extended missions because of its solar array power system, which allows it to stay in orbit for up to 270 days, Air Force officials have said.
Originally, NASA used the X-37B space plane as an experimental test bed until funding for the project ran out in 2004. The vehicle then passed to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and was ultimately turned over to the Air Force in 2006.
X-37B’s mystery mission
Air Force officials have said the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1 is being used to demonstrate and test guidance, navigation and control systems, as well as evaluate autonomous landing techniques for winged spacecraft. Details about any experimental payloads on the spacecraft are classified, Air Force officials have said.
Before the April launch of the Orbital Test Vehicle 1 flight, Gary Payton, Air Force deputy undersecretary of space programs, said that the X-37B is not a space weapon.
“I don’t know how this could be called a weaponization of space,” Payton told reporters at the time. “Fundamentally, it’s just an updated version of the space shuttle kinds of activities in space.”
But some facts about the X-37B spacecraft are well known.
For example, the spacecraft has two wings, a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed and black heat-resistant tiles to withstand the searing hot temperatures of atmospheric re-entry.
The X-37B is about 29 feet (9 meters) long and has a wingspan of just over 14 feet (4 meters) across. It stands just over 9.5 feet (3 meters) tall and weighs nearly 11,000 pounds (about 5,000 kg).
The X-37B launches like a rocket and glides back to Earth like NASA’s space shuttles, but instead of a single tail fin at the rear, the X-37B has two stabilizers, called “ruddervators,” sprouting up in a “V” shape.
The vehicle was also equipped with a destruct mechanism, so Air Force officials could destroy it by remote control if it veered off course while gliding over the Pacific Ocean toward the Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Robot space plane’s return
To prepare for the mini-shuttle’s landing, a huge team of workers had to replace some 658 steel discs along the along the centerline of Vandenberg 15,000-foot runway because the older ones could have posed a hazard to the X-37B vehicle’s tires, according to the Santa Maria Times newspaper.
The Air Force has already ordered a second X-37B, the Orbital Test Vehicle 2, which is slated to launch on another test flight sometime in the spring of 2011.
But for now, Air Force officials said they were ecstatic to see the successful return of the first X-37B spacecraft. “With it being such a unique mission for the base, it is exciting to be a part of this historic landing,” said Capt. Dariusz Wudarzewski, 2nd ROPS range operations commander. “For how long we have been working on it, I think everyone is really excited to see it culminate.”
Home again: U.S. military space plane returns to Earth BY STEPHEN CLARK Posted: December 3, 2010
Flying back to Earth after nearly 225 days in space, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane blazed through the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean Friday and swooped into a California air base under the cloak of darkness.
Capping a secret mission in orbit, the unmanned spaceship touched down at 0916 GMT (4:16 a.m. EST; 1:16 a.m. PST) on the landing strip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
The 15,000-foot-long runway was built to handle space shuttle landings, but Friday morning’s return was the first time Vandenberg welcomed home a spacecraft from orbit. The West Coast facility has hosted more than 1,900 launches since the late 1950s.
It was the first time a robotic U.S. vehicle autonomously returned to Earth from space to land on a runway. Only the former Soviet Union’s Buran space shuttle accomplished the feat before Friday morning.
“Today’s landing culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between the 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office,” said Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager from the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission.”
The 29-foot-long space plane came home as an unpowered glider after firing its primary orbital maneuvering engine and slipping back into the atmosphere from an altitude of about 170 miles.
With wings and tail fins, the X-37B resembles a small space shuttle orbiter. But it does not contain a human crew and only carries a few hundred pounds of payload inside a cargo bay about the size of a pickup truck bed.
The Phantom Works division of Boeing Co. built the spacecraft and supported mission operations in Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and El Segundo, Calif.
“We congratulate the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the success of this mission,” said Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of experimental systems and program director for the X-37B. “This marks a new era in space exploration, and we look forward to the launch of the second vehicle in 2011. By combining the best of aircraft and spacecraft into an affordable, responsive unmanned vehicle, Boeing has delivered an unprecedented capability to the RCO.”
The Rapid Capabilities Office is headquartered in the Secretary of the Air Force’s office at the Pentagon and oversees new technological developments on the fast track for introduction into operational roles.
The budget for the X-37B, also called the Orbital Test Vehicle, is classified. The Air Force has not disclosed any of the craft’s activities in space, other than saying engineers were testing its flight characteristics and demonstrating its high-tech systems.
“The X-37B program performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies,” the Air Force said in a statement Friday.
The space plane is designed to enter the atmosphere, approach the landing site with the help of GPS navigation, then line up with the runway, drop its landing gear and slap down on the surface at nearly 300 mph.
Shielded by thermal blankets and a coat of ceramic and silica tiles, the X-37B was expected to brave more severe re-entry conditions than the space shuttle.
Friday’s landing marks the transition from the orbital phase of the program to a refurbishment period, in which engineers will inspect and evaluate the vehicle to assess its performance in space. The reusable spacecraft could then be prepared for a second flight.
The X-37B launched April 22 on an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Boeing and the Air Force are building another X-37B vehicle scheduled for launch in the spring of 2011.
X-37B Completes 220-Day Mission Dec 6, 2010 By Guy Norris
LOS ANGELES – The U.S. Air Force is reviewing test data from the first X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-1), which completed a picture-perfect autonomous landing at 1:16 a.m. Pacific Time at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., on Dec. 3 after a 220-day space mission.
The flight is the first successful runway recovery of an autonomous space vehicle since the 1988 demonstration launch and landing of the former Soviet Union’s Buran unmanned space shuttle, and more important for the Air Force, marks a first step toward deployment of a fully reusable, responsive space capability.
Lessons learned from the secret project will be used for mission planning of the second Boeing-built X-37B, OTV-2, currently being prepared for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on an Atlas V in the March-April 2011 time period. The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (Afrco), which manages the X-37B program, says “OTV-1’s de-orbit and landing mark the transition from the on-orbit demonstration phase to a refurbishment phase,” but gives no indication when it will return to space.
Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager from Afrco, says “the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission.” Although most objectives remain classified, it is known the flight was aimed primarily at vetting vehicle systems and design features, with a secondary emphasis on the more advanced sensor technology likely to feature more prominently in follow-up missions. Vehicle technology test targets for OTV-1 included advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high-temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, and lightweight electromechanical flight systems.
Without knowing additional mission details it is already clear that Friday’s landing, following its April 20 launch on an Atlas V, marks the successful accomplishment of several key targets, including autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing, as well as demonstrations of long-duration space technology experimentation and testing. The vehicle was operated throughout the mission by Air Force Space Command’s 3rd Space Experimentation Sqdn. based at Schriever AFB, Colo.
With autonomous control and recovery now demonstrated, the OTV-2 follow-on flight is expected to focus more on testing of additional spacecraft technology and deployable payloads the OTV will carry in its 7 x 4-ft. payload bay.
Originally built for a NASA program, the X-37B was taken over by the Air Force, which initially worked the program in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). The 29-ft. long, 15-ft. span vehicle, resembles a small space shuttle in overall form, and was designed to test human spaceflight technologies for NASA before transitioning to Darpa in 2004 for use in its Approach & Landing Test Vehicle program.
April 22, 2010, 23:52 UTC - December 3, 2010, 09:16 UTC
224 days, 9 hours, 24 minutes
Most of the mission parameters for the USA-212 flight have not been disclosed. The vehicle is capable of being on-orbit for up to 270 days. The Air Force stated the mission time would depend on progress of the craft’s experiments during orbit. Mission control was handled by the 3d Space Experimentation Squadron, 21st Space Wing, of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs.
Hypothetical mission components
As the mission of USA-212 and the X-37B program are classified, public commentary on the program is speculation. James Oberg speculated that the concurrent launch of Air Force’s Hypersonic Technology Vehicle HTV-2 was related to the mission. Part of an X-37B’s mission profile might involve a simulated enemy attack, which the X-37B should be able to detect and autonomously counteract. HTV-2 was launched at 23:00 UTC on April 22, 2010, i.e., 52 minutes ahead of X-37B, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, on a suborbital trajectory supposed to last less than 25 min. The mission failed and was aborted nine minutes after launch.
William Scott, coauthor of the techno-novel Counterspace: The Next Hours of World War III and former Rocky Mountain Bureau Chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine believes that with X-37B, the Air Force might test weapon delivery from a space plane in low Earth orbit. He mentions Rods from God as a possible scenario. This hypothesis aligns with speculation that the launch of USA-212 marks the beginning of military operations in space.