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First Flight


Second X-37B Prepared For Launch
Dec 7, 2010
By Guy Norris

LOS ANGELES – The U.S. Air Force says the second planned mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) will “expand the operating envelope” of the autonomous space vehicle, potentially increasing the orbital cross-range and capability of landing in stronger crosswinds.

Richard McKinney, Air Force undersecretary for space programs, says the second test X-37B – OTV-2 – is being prepared in Boeing’s California space facilities for transfer “soon” to Cape Canaveral. From there it will be launched on an Atlas V in the March-April 2011 time period.

Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager from the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (Afrco), which manages the X-37B program, says OTV-2’s mission will focus on “expanding the operating envelope of what its capabilities are. This time, we put more restrictions on landing winds and on orbiting cross-range. We picked an orbit that was well within its ability to get back to Vandenberg Air Force Base,” he adds. The next flight may have a more exaggerated orbit to test the cross-range recovery characteristics and may end up with an attempted recovery in more marginal weather.

McKinney and Giese commented on the Air Force plans for OTV-2 following the successful autonomous landing and recovery of OTV-1 at Vandenberg in the early hours of Dec. 3 after a 244-day mission.

But the landing, which was 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, was not without incident. McKinney says the vehicle’s left main landing gear tire blew out on touchdown–a mishap not easily spotted in initial photos released by the Air Force. However, program officials say the fact the X-37B continued to roll down the runway centerline without deviation following the blowout of the 300-psi. dinner-plate-size tire is a testament to the integrity of its control system.

Shreds of ruptured tire caused some damage to the belly of the vehicle, which also was pitted in several places by unidentified space debris. “Where it came from we don’t know,” McKinney says, adding that initial inspections have revealed damage in “about seven” places to the thermal protection tiles and vehicle body. However, McKinney says evidence of impacts and tire burst does not diminish the overall performance of the vehicle or its test accomplishments over an almost eight-month space mission. “The purpose of this particular mission was the vehicle,” he adds.

Stressing the use of the OTV as a test platform, McKinney downplays the possible role of the X-37B itself as a reusable vehicle for responsive space roles. “It’s a test vehicle. We want to be able to put objects into space and test them out, and exercise them.” As such, OTV “does not replace the other [responsive space] capabilities such as TacSat, but it gives us another dimension. We have the ability to research technologies, do experiments in space and return them to Earth. That’s a capability that’s been severely limited in the past. We have a very serious and important business in providing national security space capability, and our ability to examine those technologies before deployment is a big sought-after capability.”

OTV-1 primarily was aimed at checking out vehicle systems and design features, with a secondary emphasis on the more advanced sensor technology likely to be featured 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.

Giese says the flight also was a successful test of the vehicle’s ability to open its payload doors and deploy a solar array that provided onboard power for the duration of the mission. On command, the X-37B autonomously folded the array, closed the doors (which contain radiator panels to dissipate heat into space), commenced a re-entry burn, and performed a series of S-turns to bleed off energy like the space shuttle during its descent through the atmosphere.

X 37B Prepares for second launch today
4 March 2011

WASHINGTON (AFNS) – Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office officials announced the launch of the second X-37B March 4 with a back-up launch opportunity March 5.

AFRCO is leading the Defense Department’s orbital test vehicle initiative, by direction of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and the secretary of the Air Force.

For the first X-37B OTV mission, Air Force officials focused on testing and evaluating the performance capabilities of the vehicle. This second mission will build upon the OTV-1 on-orbit demonstration, validate and replicate initial testing and fine tune the technical parameters of the vehicle tests.

Launch specialists at the Air Force Space Command’s 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., will launch the vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on an Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41. The vehicle will land at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and will be recovered by technicians from the 30th Space Wing.

The launch window for the mission opens at 3:39 p.m. EST.

Edit:- Bad weather has delayed the launch by 24 hours

OTV-2 was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket, tail number AV-026, on 5 March 2011 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It was scheduled to launch on the previous day, 4 March, but weather prevented the launch on that day, forcing the reschedule to 5 March.

The launch was conducted by United Launch Alliance.

Carrier Rocket

Atlas V 501

Orbital Elements

Regime LEO

Inclination 42.9 degrees

Apoapsis 319 km (198 mi)

Periapsis 317 km (197 mi)

Service History

US 'space warplane' may be spying on Chinese spacelab
Is X-37B's secret mission watching Heavenly Palace?
By Brid-Aine Parnell
Posted in Space, 6th January 2012 11:25 GMT

The US Air Force’s second mysterious mini-space shuttle, the X-37B, could be spying on China’s space laboratory and the first piece of its space station, Tiangong-1.

Amateur space trackers told the British Interplanetary Society publication Spaceflight that the black-funded spaceplane seemed to be orbiting the Earth in tandem with Tiangong_1, or the Heavenly Palace, leading the magazine to speculate that its unknown mission is to spy on it.

“Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China’s nascent space station,” Spaceflight editor Dr David Baker told the BBC.

America has refused to come clean on exactly what the X-37Bs are meant to be doing up there, but the line on the plane has always been that it’s a test prototype of a reusable spacecraft that can carry experiments into and back from space.

According to the Air Force’s fact sheet on the project, which was funded from the classified budget:

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is the newest and most advanced
re-entry spacecraft.  Based on NASA's X-37 design, the
unmanned OTV is designed for vertical launch to low Earth
orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space
technology experimentation and testing.

Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously re-enters
the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway.

As well as being winged for re-entry, the OTV also has a strong heat shield, both perfectly in tune with the (vaguely) stated purpose of the craft.

However since people don’t even know how much the things cost, exactly where either one was headed and with what payload when they took off in April 2010 and March 2011 respectively, or for how long they’re supposed to be up there, it’s assumed the spacecraft have naturally been assigned some sort of clandestine military purpose.

The doomsayers in the Iranian media dubbed the X-37B a “secret space warplane” before the first one went up, adding that it was the first generation of US space Predator drones that would build up the US' space armada.

Slightly less alarmist is the hypothesis suggested by El Reg and others that the mini-space shuttle’s purpose has something to do with spy satellites. That could be a spot of sat-napping - grabbing or disabling other countries' satellites while leaving the owners to assume some sort of space accident. Or it could be picking up their own eye-poppingly expensive sats for repair or recycling back at home.

This newest theory, that it might be spying on Tiangong-1, is also a possibility, but it does have a couple of holes in it.

First off, the Chinese spacelab wasn’t launched until September 2011, some time after the second X-37B hit Earth’s orbit. Of course, the USAF’s gizmo is supposedly reprogrammable from the ground so they could conceivably have sent it off in search for the lab once the Chinese got their gear up, but that doesn’t explain what it was doing before that.

Secondly, you’d have to wonder why it’s worth spying on the Tiangong-1. The lab is unmanned for the moment, so all there’d be to study is the technology of the craft and what experiments it’s doing. Still, the US is hugely suspicious of China’s space endeavours, so it’s more than possible that they’d want to get a look at Tiangong-1 just in case it’s doing anything unexpected.

Brian Weedon, a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation and former orbital analyst with the USAF, told the BBC he thinks that the X-37B is spying on the Middle East and Afghanistan, possibly with new kinds of sensors.

“A typical spy satellite is in a polar orbit, which gives you access to the whole Earth,” he said.

“The X-37B is in a much lower inclination which means it can only see a very narrow band of latitudes, and the only thing that’s of real interest in that band is the Middle East and Afghanistan.

“Is it spying on Tiangong-1? I really don’t think so. I think the fact that their orbits intersect every now and again - that’s just a co-incidence. If the US really wanted to observe Tiangong, it has enough assets to do that without using X-37B,” he added.

Wilder theories have also reared their heads, such as that both Tiangong-1 and the second X-37B spotted “something else” in space and went to have a look at it - but that seems a little bit like wishful thinking from ET-loving dreamers.

The latest edition of Spaceflight, complete with the X-37B hypothesis, will be published this weekend.

Expert: U. S. Secret Space Plane Not Likely 'Spying' on China Module
By Genalyn Corocoto | January 9, 2012 10:17 AM EST

A former orbital analyst said previous reports of U. S. military’s X-37B space plane spying on a prototype space module are extremely unlikely to be true.

According to Brian Weeden, a technical adviser with the Secure World Foundation and a former orbital analyst with the U. S. Air Force, the robotic X-37B space place could not possibly be surveilling China’s Tiangcong 1 space laboratory as they have different orbits.

“I would go as far as to say, ‘no chance,’” said Weeden. “It’s not practical.”

The experimental X-37B was launched for the first time by the U.S. Air Force on a classified mission in March 2011. The spacecraft is known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2, or OTV-2. Meanwhile, China launched its unmanned Tiangong 1 space lab in September and is using the vessel to carry out orbital docking tests.

Observers have speculated that that the X-37B and Tiangong 1 have broadly similar orbits since both are currently about 180 miles (300 kilometers) above the Earth, with an inclination of roughly 43 degrees with respect to the equator.

However, Weeden said the orbits of the X-37B and Tiangong 1 differ by about 100 degrees in a parameter, called right ascension. This describes where a craft crosses the equator, he explained, such that the two satellites actually take disparate paths around the globe, with their orbits intersecting just twice per circuit.

Theoretically, the X-37B and Tiangong 1 could approach each other a maximum of two times per orbit, that is, is if timing works out perfectly, but with the very high speeds, it is not exact the best condition for a spy mission, Weeden said.

The X-37B, which looks like a smaller version of NASA’s recently retired space shuttle, is about 29 feet long and 15 feet wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. The U. S. Air Force has repeatedly said that the space plane’s primary mission is to test out new technologies.

The space plane’s orbit can also explain its activities, Weeden said. The craft, which is flying repeatedly over the stretch from 43 degrees north latitude to 43 degrees south, could be using new technology to observe the Middle East and Afghanistan, he said.

Weeden also speculated that with the current mission aloft for more than 10 months, the military may be putting the vehicle through something of an endurance test.

But with regards to observations that it is conducting surveillance on China, Weeden said the the government has better information-gathering tools at its disposal than the X-37B for the job.

“The U.S. has this whole network of ground-based telescopes and radars, several of which can do imaging - either radar or optical imaging of space objects - that are better suited for this,” he said.

Analysis by Irene Klotz
Tue Mar 6, 2012 07:34 AM ET 

The military won’t say what it has been doing with its experimental miniature space shuttle, but the pilotless spaceship, known as the X-37B, has been in orbit for a year now.

The 29-foot robotic spacecraft, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, was launched on March 5, 2011, on a follow-up flight to extend capabilities demonstrated by a sistership during a 244-day debut mission in 2010.

“We are very pleased with the results of ongoing X-37B experiments,” Tom McIntyre, with the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, wrote in a statement emailed to Discovery News.

“The X-37B program is setting the standard for a reusable space plane and, on this one-year orbital milestone, has returned great value on the experimental investment,” McIntyre said.

No word on when the spaceship will be landing, but the military is planning to refly its first X-37B craft this fall.

Amateur satellite watchers last spotted the spaceship on March 4 as it circled between 204 and 212 miles above the planet in an orbit inclined 42.8 degrees relative to the equator.

The spaceship’s altitude hasn’t changed much since launch, satellite-hunter Ted Molczan told Discovery News.

As of Monday, the spaceship was flying over the same ground track every 31 orbits, which takes slightly less than two days.

“Ground tracks that repeat every two to four days are a common feature of U.S. imagery intelligence satellites,” Molczan said. “It gives you a fairly frequent revisit of the same targets from the same vantage point.”

The Air Force says it is using the experimental space plane to test technologies, but provides no details. It also wants to figure out if it is possible to quickly and easily refurbish and reuse a spaceship.

Vandenberg AFB readies for X-37B landing
By: Zach Rosenberg Washington DC

US Air Force Space Command is preparing to receive the Boeing X-37B when it descends from a year-long orbit as early as this weekend to land at Vandenberg AFB, California.

“While the exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations, it is expected to occur during the early- to mid-June timeframe,” says USAF. The landing will mark roughly 15 months in orbit for the vehicle, which was designed for 270-day flights.

The landing will mark the end of the second X-37 flight. The first flight was launched in April, 2010, and recovered to Vandenberg that December. The spacecraft will remain at Vandenberg for post-flight checks and refurbishment.

“The next flight (re-flight of OTV-1) is on track for this fall, but the exact date is still awaiting wing level approval as part of the normal scheduling process,” says Spacecom.

While its mission remains classified, Spacecom officials have publically praised the spacecraft’s performance in orbit. The spacecraft itself is considered experimental, hence the X-designation. The craft has a payload bay carrying classified equipment, which has been the subject of feverish speculation.

The project was originally run by NASA, but it was cut for budgetary reasons. Soon afterwards the project was reactivated by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and turned over to the USAF.

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle lands at Vandenberg
Posted 6/16/2012
Updated 6/16/2012
30th Space Wing Public Affairs

6/16/2012 - VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the Air Force’s unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. (PDT) June 16.

OTV-2, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., March 5, 2011, conducted on-orbit experiments for 469 days during its mission.

“Team Vandenberg has put in over a year’s worth of hard work in preparation for this landing and today we were able to see the fruits of our labor,” said Col. Nina Armagno, 30th Space Wing commander.“I am so proud of our team for coming together to execute this landing operation safely and successfully.”

The X-37B is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.

“With the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development,” said Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, X-37B program manager.“The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs. We’re proud of the entire team’s successful efforts to bring this mission to an outstanding conclusion.”

The Air Force is preparing for another launch of the X-37B from Cape Canaveral Air Force station sometime in Fall 2012 aboard an Atlas V booster. This will be a re-flight of the first X-37B OTV, which was successfully recovered at Vandenberg AFB Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days on orbit.


usa-226 2011.03.05

Most of the mission parameters for the first OTV-2 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. On November 29, 2011 a spokesperson for the Secretary of the Air Force announced the mission was extended beyond its original life expectancy, citing ongoing experimentation.

Reportedly USA-226 carried a folded solar panel in its cargo bay.