The US Air Force announced that the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a miniature, unmanned space shuttle could return to Earth as soon as this Friday, December 3. It has been in Earth orbit for about nine months on a classified mission for the military. It will land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Los Angeles sometime between Friday and Monday, Air Force officials said in a statement. The exact time of touchdown will depend on weather conditions and technical factors.
Preparations for the landing began on Tuesday, the Air Force Space Command said. The backup landing site would be Edwards Air Force Base.
The X-37B launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 22. It was built by Boeing, and the vehicle looks like a space shuttle orbiter, but is much smaller: at 9 meters long and 4.5 meter wide (29 X 15 ft), with a payload bay that is 2.1 by 1.2 meters (7 by 4 feet) the X-37B is about 1/4th the size of a shuttle.
The X-37B uses solar arrays and lithium ion batteries to generate power instead of fuel cells like the space shuttle, a major reason why it can stay on orbit for much longer.
Originally the vehicle was scheduled for launch in from the payload bay of the Space Shuttle, but that plan was axed following the Columbia accident.
The X-37B’s mission is to “demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force,” according to a fact sheet put out by the military. “Objectives of the OTV program include space experimentation, risk reduction and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”
It will be interesting to see if the military will share any of the on-orbit activities of the space plane and what capabilities and uses this vehicle might have in the future.
See our previous article “What is the Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Doing in Orbit?” for more information.
Source: Air Force Space Command
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.