US Military X-37B rolls out to Atlas Launch Pad poised for March 4 launch – Photo Album

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The second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-2) built for the US Air Force was rolled out today (March 3) to the Atlas rocket launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41(SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The experimental OTV-2 is poised to blast off on Friday, March 4 on an Atlas V rocket in a launch window that extends from 3:39 pm to 5:39 p.m. EST. The X-37B is encapsulated in a 5 meter fairing.

The secret cargo and experiments loaded aboard are shrouded behind a veil of military security.

UPDATE: Due to weather concerns, the launch has been postponed until Saturday, March 5. Weather is predicted to improve to 40% favorable for launch.

Air Force technicians are completing final preparations for the late afternoon blast off of the bronze colored rocket topped by the extra long payload fairing to accommodate the OTV-2.

The rocket is sitting atop the mobile launch platform and was pushed about 1800 feet from the 31 story Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to launch pad 41 by twin diesel powered trackmobiles. See my photo album of today’s X-37B rollout and close up visit to the Atlas rocket at SLC-41.

“No major changes were required from the OTV-1 flight based on post-flight assessments, but we did make a few minor modifications based on lessons learned from the first flight,” Tracy Bunko, Maj, USAF of the Air Force Press Desk told me in an interview.

“We’re pleased with what we’ve seen so far. Technology assessments are ongoing in areas including re-entry guidance, navigation, and control, thermal protection systems, and flight actuation systems.”

“We want to potentially test the landing capabilities in stronger wind conditions,” Bunko explained.

Read the mission preview and launch report by Jason Rhian

X-37B at Space Launch Complex 41 slated for March 4, 2011 launch after rollout of Atlas V rocket
from Vertical Integration Facility (left) pad 41 (right) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas V rocket with X-37B bolted atop at pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida poised for March 4 launch. Credit: Ken Kremer
The X-37B is poised for launch on March 4, 2011 after rollout to pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
X-37B is encapsulated in a Swiss made five meter fairing.
Credit: Ken Kremer
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) and Atlas V rocket bathed in xenon lights after March 3 rollout at Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Launch scheduled for March 4. Credit: Ken Kremer
Photo taken from roof of CBS News building at KSC press site

Sequence of Photos showing rollout of Atlas V rocket, from right to left

March 3 rollout of X-37B Vertical Integration Facility (right) to Launch Pad 41 (left) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

March 3 rollout of X-37B Vertical Integration Facility (right) to Launch Pad 41 (left) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer
March 3 rollout of X-37B Vertical Integration Facility (right) to Launch Pad 41 (left) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

Air Force and ULA to launch second X-37B

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CAPE CANAVERAL – From all appearances the first flight of the U.S. Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane was a complete success. As such, the Air Force is planning to launch a second Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) on March 4 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on top of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas rocket. The Air Force has not yet released a specific launch time.

The first flight of an OTV took place on Apr. 22, 2010 on top of an Atlas V 501 rocket and was designated USA-212. Built by Boeing, the spacecraft is unmanned and is in many ways similar to the space shuttle. It has a payload bay, maneuvering thrusters up front and to the rear of the spacecraft and a single, primary engine.

The OTV is different from the space shuttle in that it can operate on-orbit for up to 270 days. During the vehicle’s maiden flight it was spotted by a number of amateur astronomers who verified that the craft changed orbits a number of times before it landed safely at Vandenberg Air Force base on Dec. 3, 2010.

The first X-37B lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station last April. Photo Credit: ULA T.V.

“We are tremendously excited to launch the second OTV space vehicle for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Our combined Air Force and ULA mission partner team has worked hard to prepare the Atlas V for this mission which is the first launch of the year for ULA from the east coast in 2011,” said ULA’s Director of Communications, Mike Rein. “I fully expect this launch to be a 100 percent successful mission – just like the first OTV launch in April 2010.”

Originally the OTV was to be deployed from the space shuttle’s payload bay, after the Columbia accident however, it was decided to launch from an EELV instead. At first a Delta II was given the nod to launch the space plane – before the Atlas V was confirmed as the launch vehicle that would be used.

The X-37B is similar in many ways to NASA's space shuttle - but it is far smaller and unmanned. Photo Credit: Air Force

The U.S. Air Force has disclosed only minimal information regarding the first mission and has said little about the upcoming mission as well. The Air Force has stated that the length of the OTV’s mission’s will be determined by the completion rates of the experiments that are onboard. Mission control is based out of Colorado with the 3d Space Experimentation Squadron.

The X-37B is only the second reusable spacecraft that is capable of conducting an automated landing. The only other reusable craft that has demonstrated this capability was Russia’s Buran shuttle which returned safely to Earth on Nov. 15, 1988.

The X-37B was a program initially handled by NASA; however the program was eventually turned over to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Pentagon. The OTV flew several times on Scaled Composites’ White Knight aircraft and was drop tested twice successfully in 2006.

As seen in this diagram, the X-37B is encapsulated within the fairing of the Atlas rocket. Image Credit: ULA
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Gallery: X-37B Space Plane Returns to Earth

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The secret military space plane has returned home, and while the mission was classified, the Air Force and Boeing have supplied pictures of the craft after landing. With this mission appearing to be a success, the Air Force is preparing to launch the next X-37B, OTV-2, in Spring 2011 aboard an Atlas V booster.

See more images below.

X-37B is shown here after landing at 1:16 a.m. Pacific time today, concluding its more than 220-day experimental test mission. Credit: Boeing
The X-37B after landing. Credit: 30th Space Wing (Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
X-37B on the runway at Vandenburg Air Force Base. Credit: Boeing.
X-37B after landing. Credit: 30th Wing, Vandenberg Air Force Base.
X-37B is shown here after landing at 1:16 a.m. Pacific time today, concluding its more than 220-day experimental test mission. Credit: Boeing
X-37B Landing by 30th Space Wing (Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.)

Here’s a video which includes the landing (which we showed on our previous article) plus post landing activities.

Secret X-37B Mini Space Shuttle Lands

The X-37B mini space shuttle made a stealth landing during the early morning hours, landing at Vandenberg Air Force base at 1:16 a.m. PDT (0916 GMT) today (Friday, Dec. 3.) The US Air Force’s first unmanned space plane successfully glided to a landing after nearly 225 days in space.

X-37B program manager Lt Col Troy Giese stated moments after landing, “We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission.”

Above is an infrared camera view of the space plane taxiing after landing this morning.

The space plane’s exact mission was not divulged, and the Air Force did not immediately report anything about the performance of the spacecraft or if any issues arose.

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.”

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Source: Space Launch News

Secret Mini Space Shuttle Could Land on Friday

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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.

Launch of the X37-B. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today

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

‘Secret’ X-37B Space Plane Disappears Again

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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.

Source: Spaceweather.com

What is the Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Doing in Orbit?

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Last month’s launch of the US Air Force X-37B secret mini space plane has fueled speculation about the real mission of this vehicle and if it could possibly be used for a new type of military weapon. The X-37B launched on April 22, 2010 and has the ability to stay in orbit for up to 270 days. While the Air Force provided a webcast of the launch, since then there has been no word — leaked or official – about the status of the mission. “There has been a lot of speculation about what this vehicle could do and what sort of capabilities it could provide to the U.S. military, and some of that speculation was based on more science fiction than fact,” said Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation. “While a successful completion of the X-37B flight, landing, and turn-around will certainly be a significant step forward in reusable space vehicle technology, it is a long ways away from a single-stage-to-orbit capability.”


Weeden has put together a fact sheet on the X-37B, looking at the technical feasibility of some of the proposed missions for the mini space shuttle look-alike, and says that there’s almost no chance it could be used as a new weapon or a new weapon delivery system.

The X-37B will land unpiloted at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It 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.

Artist impression of the Boeing X-37B (USAF)

Weeden said that after looking at all the proposed missions for the X-37B, he concluded the most likely probability is that it will be used as a flexible, responsive spacecraft to collect intelligence from space and as a platform to flight test new sensors and satellite hardware.

“One of the downsides to using satellites for collecting intelligence is that once they are launched they have a fixed set of sensors and capabilities,” Weeden said. “The X-37B brings to space the capability to customize the on-board sensor package for a specific mission, similar to what can be done with U.S. reconnaissance aircraft such as the U-2 and SR-71. In many ways, this gives the X-37B the best of both worlds,” he added.

Here’s a brief look at the potential uses for the X-37B:

On-orbit sensor platform and test bed, with the ability to return payload. “What it offers that we have seldom had is the ability to bring back payloads and experiments to examine how well the experiments performed on-orbit,” said Gary Payton, the undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs. “That’s one new thing for us.”

Given the R&D that likely was put into the X-37B, this approach probably isn’t very cost-effective, but Weeden said this is the most likely use the spaceplane. X-37B payload bay could hold various sensors used for intelligence collection of the Earth from space, potentially including radar, optical, infrared, and signals/electronic intelligence suites to flight-test and evaluate new sensors and hardware.

Deployment platform for operationally responsive space satellites. Weeden said this has a midrange chance of being X-37B’s mission, and he quotes Payton: “We could have an X-37 sitting at Vandenberg or at the Cape, and on comparatively 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.”

But given it still would be dependent on the availability of EELV, it may not have a very quick response time for launch.

On-orbit repair vehicle. Weeden said this option has a fairly low chance of being X-37B’s real mission. While it could be used to rendezvous with malfunctioning satellites and repair or refuel them, the X-37B is limited in altitude (it has been rumored that it will have a maximum altitude range of 700 or 800 km (about 500 nautical miles), potentially high enough to access most Sun-synchronous satellites, but this is unconfirmed, plus not many existing operational military satellite components will fit in the X-37B cargo bay. And as the engineers who tried to figure out how to fix the Hubble Space Telescope robotically, without humans, on-orbit repair is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Launch of the X37-B. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today

On-orbit inspection of satellites. This option has a low potential, as well. The X-37B could be used to rendezvous and inspect satellites, either friendly or adversary, and potentially grab and de-orbit satellites. However, the X-37B cargo bay is much smaller than many operational satellites, and most of the space in the bay is likely to be filled by the required robotic arm and other gear.

Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) weapon or delivery system. Weedend says that chance of this being X-37B’s mission is zero. It could be launched in response to a pending crisis and remain on orbit for a length of time to respond to high value/very time sensitive targets. However, since the X-37B re-enters like the space shuttle and lands at an estimated 200 mph (321 kph), this means it travels in the atmosphere much slower than a ballistic arc or a hyperkinetic weapon, so it would need to carry conventional explosives to do any significant damage. Also, after re-entry would be a slow moving, not-very-maneuverable glide bomb, easy prey for any air defense system along its path to the target.

For more information, a four-page, fact-filled X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Fact Sheet is now available on Secure World Foundation’s website.

Source: Secure World Foundation, special thanks to Leonard David.

Secret Mini Space Shuttle Could Launch April 19

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It’s cute. It’s little. It’s also top secret. The X-37B orbital test vehicle is at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and the word is that it will be launched on board an Atlas V rocket on Monday April 19, 2010 at around 10 pm EDT. Other than that, the Air Force isn’t saying much about this mini-space shuttle look-alike. The reusable unmanned vehicle is capable of staying in orbit for 270 days, but the mission duration hasn’t been announced. Additionally, the ship has a payload bay for experiments and deployable satellites, but no word if any payloads will be included on the inaugural flight of this mini space plane.

X-37B. Credit: US Air Force

The X-37B is 9 meters long and 4.5 meter wide (29 X 15 ft) and its payload bay is 2.1 by 1.2 meters (7 by 4 feet). The vehicle was built at Boeing Phantom Works, based on an orbital and re-entry demonstrator design initially developed by NASA, then handed over to the Pentagon.

Rumors of an X-37B launch have been circulating since 2008.

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-37A carried by WhiteKnightOne in 2005 (Alan Radecki)

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency completed a series of approach and landing drop tests in 2007 of an experimental X-37B vehicle using the White Knight airplane from Scaled Composites as a mothership.

It will land like the space shuttle, with the primary landing site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Edwards Air Force Base is the backup landing site.

The project is managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

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 ascertain the capabilities and uses for this vehicle.

Sources: Spaceflightnow, Wiki,