Secret X-37B Mini Space Shuttle Could Land Today

by Nancy Atkinson on June 13, 2012

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The first X-37B landing in 2010. Credit: Vandenberg Air Force Base.

After more than a year in orbit, the US Air Force’s clandestine mini-space shuttle will likely land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California sometime this week, with some reports saying it could land as early as today, Wednesday, June 13, 2012. It has been in orbit since March 5, 2011, but like the first X-37B mission that flew in 2010 and spent 224 days in space, the Air Force has not issued any information of what the craft is doing or where it is orbiting. However, amateur skywatchers and amateur satellite trackers have been keeping an eye on where the OTV-2 has been.

After launch it had a 331 km (206-mile)orbit inclined 42.8 degrees to the equator, but in the summer of 2011 the orbit was raised slightly to 337 km (209 miles).
The craft looks like a miniature space shuttle, and is 8.8 meters (29 feet) long with a wing span of 4.2 meters (14 feet). It can weigh up to about 5,000 kg (11,000 pounds) fueled for launch. The reported in-space design life is 270 days, but sources say that good performance on this mission enabled ground controllers to keep it aloft significantly longer.

Jeremy Eggers, a spokesman for the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg was quoted by ABC News that the spacecraft’s first available landing opportunity will be Wednesday, depending on weather and technical conditions. The landing window extends through June 18, but Eggers says any landing is a “day-by-day situation based on the conditions.”

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Mastercope June 13, 2012 at 2:38 PM

Me thinks it carries “Sledge Hammers”,,, kinetic weapons

Skipdallas June 13, 2012 at 3:40 PM

These types of kinetic weapons would have to weigh tons to be effective. Plus they would need an ablative shield (or some sort of thermal protection) to survive the journey to the surface, or near enough to the surface so the blast effect would take out the target. This would be hugely expensive. First the manufacture of the bodies. Second the boost to orbit. And the precise de-orbit and targeting would be problematic, but not unsolvable. As weapons, the only plus would be the lack of radioactive fallout. Our current nukes are capable of hitting a very small target. And in a shooting war, I doubt that fear of fallout would hold back the button pushers for more than a few seconds if that long.
You can bet that whatever it was doing was sneaky, nefarious, and most likely dangerous!

Stan Taylor June 14, 2012 at 12:13 PM

Read “Footfall” Niven and Pournelle. (and if you haven’t, why not?) Small, but dense javelin-like weapons with only a gps-like guidance module and a few vanes to point them at their target. Make them just robust enough to survive reentry & you won’t want to be standing in the bulls-eye zone. We’re not talking about taking out a city here; today most targets are more the size of a cantaloupe…

Skipdallas June 14, 2012 at 1:37 PM

These “Javelin type” weapons you speak of would not be very cost effective. The manufacture and then the boost to orbit of a tactical system that already has a ground based system for pin-point targets in place is wasteful of resources. They would only make sense if your forces were invading another planetary system. Then you would use what was at hand (small asteroids for example) or you may use small targeted kinetic javelins. BTW I love Science Fiction! :-)

Keith Nealy June 14, 2012 at 7:32 PM

Why does it need to be an earth headed weapon? Why not anti-satellite? Much lighter, no ablation needed.

Or it could not be weaponized at all. It could just be “getting acquainted” with all its neighbors. Checking them out.

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sam carson June 13, 2012 at 7:22 PM

It must be an analyzing satellite otherwise it would have been in news much earlier.

Jon Souter June 14, 2012 at 10:05 AM

I don’t follow – this mission has been widely reported since it launched – including when amateur astronomers noticed that it’s orbit had been modified.

The US military have been quite public about the X37b – just not what it’s payload is, or what it’s doing up there during this “test mission”.

Aqua4U June 13, 2012 at 8:18 PM

What I really like about this project. is it’s ability to swoop into the lower upper stratosphere at high speeds and take close-up images and radiometric data, then climb baaaack up into orbit… or into an evasive tracking maneuver?

Skipdallas June 14, 2012 at 1:49 PM

I doubt that this small ship could carry enough fuel to re-boost to orbit after slowing down to non-orbital speeds when it came into contact with the stratosphere. Besides, the optics available today can work just as well (better even) from orbit that they can in the upper atmosphere. Even the relatively this stratosphere would cause buffeting absent a true low earth orbit.

Aqua4U June 14, 2012 at 2:39 PM

I was thinking in terms of this ship climbing to high orbit then accelerating as it plunges thru it’s perigee allowing it to ‘skip’ into then out of the upper atmosphere. A maneuver which wouldn’t use all that much or any fuel at all.

You are right that most photometric and radar imaging is done from orbit, but close ups are still required for details. By ‘radiometric data’ I meant detecting neutrons as emitted by fission.

Also… what we see on the landing strip is not the entire craft. It is the re-entry vehicle. There is a whole other part of this ship which is not seen here. The aft section might be filled with rockets engine and fuel as well as data gathering devices and is either left on orbit or is burnt up when it re-enters.

Kevin Frushour June 13, 2012 at 8:54 PM

I doubt the US Government is too annoyed that amateur skywatchers are tracking it – if we can watch it, anyone can. What they’re probably doing is seeing what they can do with it that we don’t notice.

nafin June 13, 2012 at 11:03 PM

It appears to me that the benefit to this craft as opposed to conventional military satellites is that it is comparatively maneuverable and it can land and be reused. This makes it much less expensive, and it seems likely that it can be equipped with mission specific hardware (i.e. “today we are using a wide field view, next mission we’ll use a narrower field but higher magnification). Furthermore, weather permitting it is a fairly on-demand tool. Lastly, it also might be more capable of spotting other surveillance satellites in orbit than ground based equipment.

TerryG June 14, 2012 at 2:47 AM

Yes. Excellent to see not all of arsenal space’s flight hardware ends up joining to the great orbiting junkyard in the sky or burns up on re-entry but instead can be reused.

At just under 5,000 kg loaded weight, the X-37B would take up only about ½ of Falcon 9′s payload to LEO
capability, and when the reusable Falcon 9 comes along, they would make a superb reusable paring.

Just saying…

nafin June 14, 2012 at 4:31 PM

hmmm, tandem launch?

TerryG June 15, 2012 at 3:55 AM

Sure, plus all the Cube Sats, Micro Stats and Nano Sats that hitch a ride on the 2nd stage.

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hionthemountain June 14, 2012 at 1:52 AM

I guess this is important but, what does it have to do with the universe?

Peristroika June 14, 2012 at 3:49 AM

One of the worst worded questions of all time…since it is PART of the universe, and so are we, and it flies in space which is most of what the universe is…well, shall I go on???

hionthemountain June 14, 2012 at 5:25 AM

Stick your answer in your universe

Skipdallas June 14, 2012 at 1:42 PM

Do not feed trolls! :-)

Mark Shenefield June 14, 2012 at 4:03 PM

Presidential retreat?

Skipdallas June 14, 2012 at 7:49 PM

Very true. But we were talking about space based weapons used in ground attack modes. As an anti-satellite weapon, it would make perfect sense to station it in orbit. Also there is something to be said for your idea of LEO monitoring of the multitudes of satellites and assorted space junk.

Keith Nealy June 14, 2012 at 9:30 PM

There are international conventions against space-based weapons, but given their advantages I doubt very much whether any military is very concerned about those treaties. I’d be surprised if there weren’t space based weapons that are lurking “just in case.” The only difficulty would be testing them unobtrusively. Maybe nerf ball tests.

Skipdallas June 14, 2012 at 9:45 PM

I doubt that the Military is very forthcoming about its capabilities in space. Even to the extent of misleading the oversight committees. As for treaties…they are broken everyday on both sides of any agreement. They (treaties) are little more than PR sop’s for the gullible.

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