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

Secret X-37B Mini Space Shuttle Could Land Today

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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.”

Secretive X-37B Space Plane Will be Landing Soon

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After nearly 15 months on a secret mission, the Air Force’s X-37B, an unmanned, reusable space plane, will soon be coming back home. A news release from the Vandenberg Air Force Base says the landing is expected to occur during the early- to mid-June timeframe, although the exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations. The mini space plane has been in orbit since March 5, 2011.

This is the second mission of the Orbital Test Vehicles to fly in the X-37B program with the second space plane, OTV-2. The first X-37B mission flew in 2010, spending 224 days in space. This original vehicle has been refurbished and is scheduled to go back into space for another mission sometime in October of this year.

As for the second space plane, its long mission has been termed a success, although no mission specifics have been released. It launched on March 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Since then, the press release said, Vandenberg crews have conducted extensive, periodic training in preparation for landing.

“The men and women of Team Vandenberg are ready to execute safe landing operations anytime and at a moment’s notice,” said Col. Nina Armagno, 30th Space Wing commander. The space professionals from the 30th Space Wing will monitor the de-orbit and landing of the vehicle.

Seen here is the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, compared with proposed X-37C crewed vehicle, the space shuttle and the Atlas V booster that is currently used to launch the OTV. Image Credit: AIAA/Grantz/Boeing

The mini spaceplane 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.

While no news of its orbital parameters have been released, 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).

Vandenberg said they would provide more details when available.

Source: Vandenberg AFB

X-37B – The Gift That Keeps On Giving


Video provided courtesy of United Launch Alliance

The United States Air Force’s second flight of the X-37B – is headed into extra innings. Known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) this robotic mini space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Mar. 5, 2011. Although the U.S. Air Force has kept mum regarding details about the space plane’s mission – it has announced that the OTV-2 has exceeded its endurance limit of 270 days on orbit as of the end of November.

The OTV is launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 501 rocket. The space plane is protected within a fairing until it reaches orbit. After separation, the diminutive shuttle begins its mission.

OTV mission USA-226, as it is officially known, is by all accounts going smoothly and the spacecraft is reported to be in good health. The U.S. Air Force has not announced when OTV-2 will be directed to land.

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The fact that the space plane will continue to orbit beyond what its stated limits are highlights that the OTV has greater capabilities than what was officially announced. The first OTV flight launched in April of 2011 and landed 224 days later at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. Air Force is undoubtedly being more judicious with fuel stores on board the robotic spacecraft, allowing for a longer duration flight.

Much like NASA’s retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the OTV has a payload bay that allows for payloads and experiments to be conducted on-orbit. What payloads the U.S. Air Force has had on either mission – remains a secret.

Boeing has announced that the X-37B could be modified to conduct crewed missions to and from orbit. Tentatively named the X-37C, this spacecraft would be roughly twice the size of its unmanned cousin. If this variant goes into service it would be used to transport astronauts to and from the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).

OTV USA-226 launched on Mar. 5, 2011 and has helped prove out the mini space plane's design. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

The X-37B has become a bit controversial of late. Members of the Chinese press have stated that the space plane raises concerns of an arms race in space. Xinhua News Agency and China Daily have expressed concern that the OTVs could be used to deliver weapons to orbit. The Pentagon has flatly denied these allegations. The clandestine nature of these flights have led to a wide variety of theories as to what the OTVs have been used to ferry to orbit.

Crewed Variant of X-37 Space Plane Proposed

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As reported online at Space.com, the Boeing Company is already working on the CST-100 space taxi as a means of transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS). But the aerospace firm is not content with just this simple space capsule and is looking into whether-or-not another of Boeing’s current offerings – the X-37B space plane could be modified to one day ferry crew to and from the orbiting laboratory as well.

proposed variant of the spacecraft, dubbed the X-37C, is being considered for a role that has some similarities to the cancelled X-38 Crew Return Vehicle (CRV). The announcement was made at a conference hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and reported on Space.com.

The USAF has already launched two of the X-37B Orbital Text Vehicles (OTV) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo Credit: ULA/Pat Corkery

The X-37B or Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has so far been launched twice by the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. One of the military space planes completed the craft’s inaugural mission, USA-212, on Apr. 22, 2010. The mini space plane reentered Earth’s atmosphere and conducted an autonomous landing at Vandenberg Air Force on Dec. 3, 2010.

The U.S. Air Force then went on to launch the second of the space planes on mission USA-226 on Mar. 5, 2011. With these two successful launches, the longest-duration stay on orbit by a reusable vehicle and a landing under its belt, some of the vehicle’s primary systems (guidance, navigation, thermal protection and aerodynamics among others) are now viewed as having been validated. The vehicle has performed better than expected with the turnaround time being less than predicted.

If the X-37C is produced, it will be roughly twice the size of its predecessor. The X-37B is about 29 feet long; this new version of the mini shuttle would be approximately 48 feet in length. The X-37C is estimated at being approximately 165-180 percent larger than the X-37B. This increase in the size requires a larger launch vehicle.

This larger size also highlights plans to have the spacecraft carry 5 or 6 astronauts – with room for an additional crew member that is immobilized on a stretcher. The X-38, manufactured by Scaled Composites, was designed, built and tested to serve as a lifeboat for the ISS. In case of an emergency, crew members on the ISS would have entered the CRV and returned to Earth – a role that now could possibly be filled by the X-37C. The key difference being that the CRV only reached the point of atmospheric drop tests – the X-37B has flown into space twice.

Certain elements of the X-37C proposal highlight mission aspects of the cancelled X-38 Crew Return Vehicle. Photo Credit: NASA.gov

The crewed variant of the X-37 space plane would contain a pressurized compartment where the payload is normally stored, it would have a hatch that would allow for astronauts to enter and depart the spacecraft. Another hatch would be located on the main body of the mini shuttle so as to allow access to the vehicle on the ground. The X-37C, like its smaller cousin, would be able to rendezvous, dock, reenter the atmosphere and land remotely, without the need of a pilot. Acknowledging the need for pilots to control their own craft however, the X-37C would be capable of accomplishing these space flight requirements under manual control as well.

As mentioned in the Space.com article, one of the other selling points for the X-37C is its modular nature. Different variants could be used for crewed flights or unmanned missions that could return delicate cargo from the ISS. Neither the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, nor commercially-developed capsules are considered as appropriate means of returning biological or crystal experiments to Earth due to the high rate of acceleration that these vehicles incur upon atmospheric reentry. By comparison the X-37B experiences just 1.5 “g” upon reentry.

The launch vehicle that would send the proposed X-37C to orbit would be the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. In provided images the X-37C is shown utilizing a larger version of the Atlas booster and without the protective fairing that covered the two X-37B space planes that were launched.

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