Mysterious Military X-37B Space plane Lands after Nearly Two Years in Orbit – Video

Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base after completing 674 days in space. A total of three X-37B missions have been completed, totaling 1,367 days on orbit. Photo: Boeing
Watch cool landing video below[/caption]

The US Air Force’s unmanned, X-37B military space plane made an autonomous runway landing on Friday, Oct. 17, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., concluding an orbital test flight nearly two years in duration on a record breaking mission whose goals are shrouded in secrecy.

The Boeing-built X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), successfully fired its baking thrusters, plunged through the atmosphere, endured scorching re-entry heating and safely rolled to touch down on Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:24 a.m. PDT Friday, concluding a clandestine 674-day experimental test mission for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

This was the third flight of an X-37B OTV vehicle on a mission known as OTV-3.

“I’m extremely proud of our team for coming together to execute this third safe and successful landing,” said Col Keith Balts, 30th Space Wing commander, in a statement.

“Everyone from our on console space operators to our airfield managers and civil engineers take pride in this unique mission and exemplify excellence during its execution.”

Nothing is known about the flights objectives or accomplishments beyond testing the vehicle itself.

The OTV is somewhat like a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles. Boeing has built two OTV vehicles.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and a NASA space shuttle. The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.

A third mission of the Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle was completed on Oct. 17, 2014, when it landed and was recovered at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif, following a successful 674-day space mission.  Photo: Boeing
A third mission of the Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle was completed on Oct. 17, 2014, when it landed and was recovered at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif, following a successful 674-day space mission. Photo: Boeing

OTV-3 also marked the first reflight of an OTV vehicle, to test its re-usability.

The OTV-3 mission was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on Dec. 11, 2012, encapsulated inside the payload fairing atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41.

Among the primary mission goals of the first two flights were check outs of the vehicles capabilities and reentry systems and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely.

It is not known if the X-37B conducted reconnaissance activities during the test flights. It does have the capability to deploy satellites in space.

All three OTV missions have launched from Cape Canaveral and landed at Vandenberg.

The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

Here’s a video of the OTV-3 landing:

Video Caption: The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 3 (OTV-3), the Air Force’s unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:24 a.m. Oct. 17. Credit: USAF

“The 30th Space Wing and our mission partners, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Boeing, and our base support contractors, have put countless hours of hard work into preparing for this landing and today we were able to see the culmination of that dedication,” said Balts.

The 11,000 pound state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

Altogether, the OTV vehicles have spent 1,334 days in Earth orbit.

The OTV’s can stay on orbit far longer than NASA’s shuttles since their power is supplemented by solar panels deployed from the vehicles open cargo bay.

“The landing of OTV-3 marks a hallmark event for the program” said the X-37B program manager. “The mission is our longest to date and we’re pleased with the incremental progress we’ve seen in our testing of the reusable space plane. The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud.”

“With a program total of 1,367 days on orbit over three missions, these agile and powerful small space vehicles have completed more days on orbit than all 135 Space Shuttle missions combined, which total 1,334 days,” said Ken Torok, Boeing director of Experimental Systems, in a statement.

Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base after completing 674 days in space. A total of three X-37B missions have been completed, totaling 1,367 days on orbit.   Photo: Boeing
Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base after completing 674 days in space. A total of three X-37B missions have been completed, totaling 1,367 days on orbit. Photo: Boeing

“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,” according to an Air Force statement.

The Air Force says that the next X-37B launch on the OTV-4 mission is due to liftoff from Cape Canaveral sometime in 2015.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive  X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer
US Air Force X-37B OTV-2 mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the secretive X-37B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer

Top Secret Air Force Mini Shuttle lands after Record-Setting Stay in Space

Image Caption: 2nd X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Successfully Completes 1st Flight by landing at Vandernberg AFB, Calif., on June 16, 2012. The record setting mission lasted 469 days in earth orbit. Designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane, the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, built by Boeing for the United States Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, is an affordable, reusable space vehicle. Credit: Boeing.
See landing video below

The 2nd of the US Air Force’s top secret X-37B unmanned, reusable mini shuttles safely landed on Saturday, June 16, at 5:48 a.m. Pacific local time at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to conclude a record setting classified 469 day experimental test flight in Earth orbit.

This was the first flight of OTV-2 and the second flight of the military’s classified X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) test program for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and NASA space shuttle. The X-37B is one of the newest and most advanced reentry spacecraft.

Here is the YouTube landing video released by the US Air Force:

OTV-2 was launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on March 5, 2011.

About 18 minutes after launch, the Air Force imposed a news blackout on the classified mission. Details about the cargo and experiments loaded aboard the Air Force orbital space plane are shrouded behind a veil of military security.

It is not known if the X-37B conducted reconnaissance activities during the test flight. It does have the capability to deploy satellites in space

The Air Force says the primary mission goal was to check out the vehicles capabilities and testing the ability to send experiments to space and return them safely.


Image caption: Top secret Air Force X-37B OTV mini space shuttle is encapsulated in 5 meter payload fairing and bolted atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida prior to 5 March 2011 launch. This up close view of the nose cone holding the classified X 37-B shows the umbilical line attachments. Credit: Ken Kremer

The mission duration of well over one year far exceeded the 220-day mission duration of the first OTV craft and tested additional capabilities. Two OTV vehicles have been built by Boeing. The first craft, known as OTV-1, was the United States’ first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own.

Previously, NASA space shuttles piloted by astronauts were the only space vehicles that had demonstrated the capability of returning to Earth and being reused.

“The vehicle was designed for a mission duration of about 270 days,” said Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B program manager in an Air Force statement. “We knew from post-flight assessments from the first mission that OTV-1 could have stayed in orbit longer. So one of the goals of this mission was to see how much farther we could push the on-orbit duration.”

The 11,000 pound state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

“With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development,” McIntyre said. “The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs”

Among the cutting-edge technologies tested were the auto de-orbit capability, thermal protection tiles, and high-temperature components and seals.

“The X-37B’s advanced thermal protection and solar power systems, and environmental modeling and range safety technologies are just some of the technologies being tested,” said McIntyre. “Each mission helps us continue to advance the state-of-the-art in these areas.”


Image caption: Blastoff of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) atop an Atlas V rocket on March 5, 2011 from Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

OTV-1 may lift off as early as October 2012 from Cape Canaveral.

“We look forward to the second launch of OTV-1 later this year and the opportunity to demonstrate that the X-37B is an affordable space vehicle that can be repeatedly reused,” said Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of Government Space Systems.

Read my X-37B OTV-2 pre-launch report and see my up-close photo album of the Atlas launch pad – here

Ken Kremer